Daniel Anker's ''Music From the Inside Out" is so intent on divining the mysteries behind the creative act that it comes up frustratingly short on specifics. A self-styled ''musical essay" made in collaboration with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, it stands to enchant lovers of classical music. Those who prefer a little meat on their documentary bones may come away hungry.
For instance: The inspiration for the film reportedly arose from the symphony's divisive 1996 strike, as a way to give the working musicians, rather than management, a chance to express themselves. Filmed in group discussions and individual interviews, they do just that, divulging often moving personal histories and motivations. Yet Anker's avoidance of the larger back story -- why did the musicians go on strike? What's their relationship with the front office, the conductor, the public? -- results in a movie with its head in the clouds.
After a while, the subjects' deeply felt statements of artistic commitment start sounding unfortunately banal. ''Music takes us on this wonderful trip," says Paul, and while that's true enough, do we really need a musician to tell us that?
On the other hand, only a violinist like Kim could say, ''I love the feeling of saying something only I can say, and when I'm doing it well, I'm doing it only for me." The tug of war between individual expression and obedience to the group is the most fertile area addressed by this movie. These people play well with others -- but sometimes they don't want to.
''Music" only gives us the musicians' first names and never mentions the conductor; such earthly concerns are implicitly beneath Anker's purview. All well and good, but it's details that bring the film to life. When the orchestra members catalog what's in their stage trunks -- snacks, echinacea, Super Glue, Robert's Rules of Order (''for heated orchestra meetings") -- we get a real sense of the lives of working musicians.
Their individual stories, when we hear them, are fascinating, as is their desire to use nonclassical music to hone their artistic chops. Nitzan plays trombone in a Latin salsa band; violinist brothers Zack and Jason fire up their fiddles on bluegrass night; Israeli-born Udi duets with the renowned Palestinian oud player Simon Shaheen. How this ''outside music" fills a hole left by the warhorses of the classical repertoire is never really confronted.
The most touching story is that of violinist David, who tells of punishing youthful practice and expectations of solo stardom that never quite came to pass; amusingly, it took a night at the movies watching ''Jerry Maguire" to bring him to terms with his career. He's now content to be just another member of the orchestra (actually, he's also the orchestra's concertmaster, a fact the movie doesn't bother to pass on).
Anker makes a stab at structuring his film into three parts, but it's fairly shapeless and, toward the end, fairly deadening. The music makes up for a lot, even if rehearsal performances of Beethoven's Third, Brahms's First, and Stravinsky's ''The Rite of Spring" are continually interrupted by talking heads. For all its longueurs, ''Music From the Inside Out" is definitely worth sharing with older children, and it serves a purpose for adults as well. I came away wanting nothing so much as to hear Schubert's Cello Quintet again as soon as possible. Any movie that does that shouldn't be underestimated.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.