SOLDIERS OF MUSIC - ROSTROPOVICH RETURNS TO RUSSIA Documentary film on PBS, Tuesday, 9:30-11 p.m., check local listings. Produced by Peter Gelb and Maysles Films. EVERYONE likes a good homecoming story, but this chronicle of Mstislav Rostropovich's 1990 return to the Soviet Union delivers more than a fluffy tale recorded in sound bites.
The master cellist/composer's return in February drew media attention the world over. After all, he and his wife had been exiled from their native land for 16 years, and their return was proof of glasnost in action.
But ``Soldiers of Music'' explores the full complexity of issues and emotions surrounding the trip. Through the filmmaking style of ``direct cinema'' (which attempts to film people simply being themselves), it reveals the heroic character of the Rostropoviches themselves, the spirit of the Soviet people, and the curious nature of the changing political scene there.
``Rostropovich's return was a great cultural event,'' says co-filmmaker Peter Gelb, who initiated the project and specializes in TV programs on opera and music. But unlike Vladimir Horowitz's homecoming concert in 1986, which Mr. Gelb also filmed, ``it had great political and social consequences as well,'' he says.
Because the Rostropoviches had sheltered and spoken out on behalf of dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, their artistic careers were canceled, their names vilified, and their citizenship revoked. Rostropovich's wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, was the top female Bolshoi opera star at the time.
``What made Rostropovich and his wife do what they did?'' asks Gelb, who co-produced the program with Albert Maysles. ``They could have been killed. That pure sense of heroics was what we wanted to convey in this film.''
The film follows Rostropovich through a hectic week of performances in Moscow and Leningrad with the National Symphony Orchestra, of which he as been music director for 14 years. It also reveals the intensely personal odyssey of the Rostropoviches, in meeting old friends and revisiting familiar places.
Rostropovich granted the Emmy Award-winning team of Gelb and Maysles Films exclusive access to him throughout the trip. The camera was kept rolling in dressing rooms, back stage, in cabs, at the deserted family dacha, at noisy parties. But at no time was there any directing or posing, nor was a voice-over narrative added.
``The real strength of a documentary is finding out what is there, rather than putting into it what's already in your mind,'' says Mr. Maysles, who, with his late brother, David, helped pioneer the concept of direct cinema back in the '60s. ``When you make a documentary, you have an enormous responsibility to the truth and an even greater responsibility to the people you're depicting.''
Rostropovich adjusted easily to the crew. ``He was not conscious of the camera's presence at all,'' says Gelb.
The trick to direct cinema, a form of cin'ema v'erit'e, ``is to be as unobtrusive as possible, to have as small a crew as possible, and to be with the subject all the time, so when something happens, you're ready for it,'' adds Gelb.
Such a moment occurred when the Rostropoviches and their daughter, Olga, visited the grave site of Andre Sakharov. Rostropovich placed a wreath at the site, and the three of them silently stood there, gazing down at a large photograph of Sakharov placed on the grave. Then they began to weep.
``I felt the same tears that showed up on their face,'' says Maysles, who was the camera man for most of the trip. ``I could feel what the presence of Sakharov was doing to these people.''
One remarkable aspect brought out by ``Soldiers of Music'' is the deep significance the Soviet people place upon culture and the arts. Strangers on the street recognized Rostropovich or Galina and greeted them affectionately.
Such reverence for the arts is startling to the Western mind, says co-filmmaker Susan Froemke. ``When we left, everyone was in tears, because we felt we were losing something we never had, which is that incredible sense of culture and history.''