As a longtime fan of James Kicklighter's work, I've become accustomed to the quality independent motion pictures he creates seemingly regardless of type or genre. Yet, I must confess I'd likely never have expected such a fine work as is The Sound of Identity, a touching and beautifully constructed documentary feature telling the story of the rather magnificent Lucia Lucas, an opera singer born in America finding her fame in Europe who has arrived stateside, in Oklahoma no less, to become the first transgender woman to perform as Don Giovanni in a professional opera.
Produced by Emmy Award-winning producers Russ Kirkpatrick and Andy Kinslow and executive producer Josh Bachove (Minari, The Nowhere Inn, The Little Hours), The Sound of Identity is, perhaps, the film that will, or at least should, make Kicklighter the household name he always should have been.
From the moment one meets Lucia, one is enthralled by her presence, a magnificent baritone voice and illuminating stage presence matched by the kind of self-confidence one is seldom blessed to see by transgender portrayals in cinema. From outing herself with family in such a way that practically demanded acceptance or absence to a sort of bewildered confidence in presenting her talent in one of the reddest states in the United States, Lucia Lucas is simply extraordinary and you can't help but feel like the film's 90-minute running time flies by way too quickly.
While the indie fest scene is currently in chaos thanks to COVID-19, The Sound of Identity has already captured the 2020 OUTShine Film Festival's Programmers Award for Excellence and is no doubt destined for even greater successes.
Indeed, The Sound of Identity is a work of wonder.
It's rather wonderful to see a film that honors the transgender journey while portraying it as one of happiness and wonder, Lucia's operatic success undeniable and her comfort in her own mind and body refreshing and inspiring. Kicklighter captures the wonder of opera, the relevance of opera (and the Don Giovanni story), and almost surprisingly spends little time dwelling on Lucia's transition and nearly all of the film's attention on Lucia's immense talent and enveloping personality. One seldom notices staging within a documentary, yet it's impossible to not notice the way that Kicklighter broadens Lucia's stage as the film's interviews unfold from beginning to end.
That said, The Sound of Identity may very well shine most brightly in its quieter, more intimate moments when we find Lucia sitting alongside acclaimed Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker sharing childhood stories and mundane moments including a rather delightful scene involving video games that was quietly beautiful and downright adorable. It's in these moments, and in conversations with choreographer Denni Sayers, that we most begin to appreciate Lucia's journey and the relevance of the Don Giovanni story amidst it all. There are other fine appearances here, Hidenori Inoue being just one, that come vibrantly to life in this most unexpected of places.
The Sound of Identity works beautifully not just as a portrayal of Lucia Lucas, but also as a portrayal of the art and business of opera. Tobias Picker's very intentional decision to bring in Lucas is simultaneously an artistic decision and a business one. In some ways, though it's never completely delved into, the Tulsa Opera's future depends on the success of this risk-taking yet it's clear from point one that Picker has both personal and professional interests in seeing this all successfully unfold. Listening to Picker, who likely is second only to Lucas in screen time here, is an absolute joy.
Jonathan Pope's lensing is exceptional throughout The Sound of Identity, capturing both the magnificence and intimacy of the story unfolding alongside conductor Nicolas Repetto's remarkable music. Limited due to union agreements to only a few minutes of the production itself, Kicklighter makes the most of it all and captures the sweat and the glory and the emotional release once Lucas realizes that this heavy burden of success has, indeed, been released as she is, most definitely, a remarkably talented force of will.
The Sound of Identity may very well be Kicklighter's best film yet, though I'm fairly sure I've said that before. I'll probably say it again. The film entertains yet it does so much more in living into these difficult times and sharing the beauty and power of opera and artistic expression to change oneself and the world. It's a beautiful film that deserves to be seen on the big screen where the power of Lucia's booming voice comes to life and the full force of opera can be experienced from rehearsals to showtime. Destined to continue on the indie fest circuit then toward the a likely streaming distribution, The Sound of Identity is most definitely a wonderful sound indeed.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic