The first thing I wanted to do after watching The Last Repair Shop was give a hug to Dana Atkinsons, Duane Michaels, Paty Moreno, and Steve Bagmanyan. It would not be an exaggeration if I compared the documentary itself to a warm hug, or even a warm cup of coffee on a winter morning, and so on. Deservingly getting nominated in the “Best Documentary Short” category at the upcoming Oscars, The Last Repair Shop hits all the right notes when it comes to wholesomeness. The forty minutes of it pass like a breeze, and in the end, you crave more.
What Happens In The Documentary?
In the heart of Los Angeles, there’s a musical instrument repair shop, just like tons of other similar shops all over the world. But this one is very special because this shop not only infuses new life into dead instruments, but they are then provided to enthusiastic kids who can’t afford to buy instruments.
Dana, Paty, Duane, and Steve are the four unsung heroes of the shop—at least the ones we get to know in this story. Each of them handles different types of instruments: Dana looks after the strings, Paty takes care of the brass, Duane is in charge of the woodwinds, and Steve is the one who plays and fixes the piano. While these four are very different personality-wise, their love for music is what binds them together. And the other thing they have in common is that they all have fascinating backstories. The ones that are shared by Dana, Paty, and Steve are particularly heartbreaking and uplifting, simultaneously.
For a gay man back in the seventies, Dana had to go through a lot of struggles during his younger years. But he was courageous enough to come out and live his true self, which eventually led him to greater things in life—meeting his husband, having their kid, and doing what he has always loved—playing the violin and repairing a lot of them for kids who want to play.
When Paty arrived in the United States from Mexico, all she had with her was aspiration and courage. Things didn’t come easy for the single mother; in fact, it got so hard that she couldn’t even feed her kids at times. But life did have a plan for her, and that plan involved getting her a job at the repair shop. Paty didn’t think she would get an opportunity at a place that was run by all men back then, but she was proven wrong after all. Like Paty, Steve also moved to the United States from a faraway land, that of Azerbaijan. For him, though, his musical dream of playing piano was pretty much over after losing his father in the riots. All he was looking for was survival for the remainder of his family in the United States. But even though Steve got away from the only thing he truly ever loved—the piano—it came back to him in the manner of a beautiful coincidence.
The most exciting backstory belongs to Duane, though, who hails the Bride of Frankenstein (1953) movie as his primary inspiration to pursue music and eventually make a career out of it. Once ridiculed for his weirdness, Duane Michaels eventually went on to become a musician who would get into a band and perform at the same stage where Elvis had spread his magic. In the present day, Duane meticulously works on the woodwinds and always makes sure those are fixed properly, as even the slightest of errors in fixing would not let the instrument function right.
None of the people we see in The Last Repair Shop are celebrities per se. They are all regular people like you and me, but the work they’ve been doing for ages definitely has a lot more impact than what most of us do. The director duo of Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers cleverly shows four kids—each one interested in four different kinds of instruments—before introducing us to the concerned shop employee who’s in charge of the instrument. Watching the kids passionately talk about how much playing the instruments means to them only helps the audience realize the effectiveness of the four shop employees.
The thing that is particularly impressive here is how effortlessly The Last Repair Shop manages to make us invest in the narrative, root for all four of the employees, as well as the kids, and leave us with an immersive experience. Each segment gets only about ten minutes of time, but the fantastic editing makes sure that we get enough to feel for each of them. And the creative decision to finish telling the story with scenes from a concert by so many LAUSD alumni, along with Dana, Paty, Duane, and Steve, is like the cherry on top.
The Last Repair Shop has literally zero technical flaws, and the storytelling technique it uses is pretty much brilliant. Unlike many documentaries, it does take hold of you from the get-go, and you don’t feel bored or uninterested for a single second. This is a perfect example of how to procure a great narrative even with people just talking about their lives and their interests with an infinite amount of passion. What further helps are the stories these people choose to tell and the way they tell them. One can’t help but feel for Dana, Paty, Duane and Steve- seeing them candidly speak about all the struggles that they had to endure. And looking at where they are now, our hearts get filled with pride and joy. Of course, Duane describing “how the monster in that Frankenstein movie cried after hearing the blind man playing the violin” changed his life is the most exciting part of the documentary. It also emphasizes the healing power of music, which I suppose is the whole point of the documentary. The Last Repair Shop also quietly manages to instill the belief that one can be a hero just by their act of kindness. Dana, Paty, Duane, and Steve are heroes for so many kids already, some of whom might just make it to things like Grammys one day; you never know!