Max Richter's Sleep

This dreamlike and insightful documentary steps inside an immense eight-plus-hour live performance designed to be played while its audience slumbers.
Sarah Ward
March 11, 2021


Since first opening its doors back in 1973, the Sydney Opera House has played host to a wealth of performances, spanning far further in genre than just the art form that gives the venue its name. But it was only during Vivid Live 2016 that the iconic locale serenaded visitors into an evening-long slumber, all as part of Max Richter's live recital of his eight-and-a-half hour work Sleep. Across 31 tracks comprised of 204 movements, the German-born British composer's concept album unfurls music based on the neuroscience of getting some shuteye. In its intonation, the ambitious yet soothing piece favours the range that can be heard in the womb for much of its duration. When performed for an audience, it is played overnight, with beds set up — and doing as the work's title suggests is highly encouraged. Attendees recline, listen and let Richter's blend of strings, synthesisers and soprano vocals lull them into the land of nod. If they'd prefer to stay awake, that's fine as well, but soaking in Sleep's ambient sounds while you're snatching 40 winks is all very much part of the experience.

In its live version, Sleep has echoed through spaces in London, Berlin and Paris, too; however, it's the first openair performance in Los Angeles' Grand Park in 2018 that takes pride of place in the documentary Max Richter's Sleep. A filmmaker was always bound to be so fascinated with the concept that they'd turn their lens Richter's way, and that director is Natalie Johns (an Emmy nominee for Annie Lennox: Nostalgia Live in Concert), who endeavours to capture the experience for those who haven't had the pleasure themselves. The resulting film doesn't run for more than eight hours, or anywhere close — but those watching and listening will quickly wish that it did. As a feature, Max Richter's Sleep isn't designed to advertise its namesake. Rather, it documents, explores and tries to understand it. Still, the movie so easily draws viewers into the music, and so deeply, that making its audience want to snooze in public while Richter and his band plays is a guaranteed side effect.

In its observational footage, Max Richter's Sleep wanders and peers as Angelenos arrive, settle in, turn their attention to the stage, get comfortable and drift off. It keeps gazing their way as they slumber, as Richter and his fellow musicians keep playing, and, later, as a change in pitch in the music and the dawning sunrise both eventually herald the morning. Johns and editors Michael Carter (Dayveon), Matt Cronin (the Arctic Monkeys' 'Four Out of Five' video) and Dom Whitworth (Lily Allen and Friends) weave in footage from other concerts, too, including Sydney. The film also flits between interviews with Richter and Yulia Mahr, his partner and an artist and filmmaker, plus other collaborators. And, it speaks to ordinary folks who've signed up for a night of music — some knowing exactly what they were in for, others not quite as aware — and been moved by the experience,

As a concert film, Max Richter's Sleep is entrancing; again, viewers won't want those segments of the documentary to end. And if the feature had simply played the Los Angeles concert in its entirety, or as an abridged glimpse, it would've conveyed many of its points without further explanation. So much of the music's power — and the live performance's as well — is evident without words. An eight-plus-hour album that's engineered to be listened to in a sleeping state is a clear anomaly in popular culture, and in our non-stop world. Every artwork demands an investment of time, whether it's a song that plays for just a few minutes, a movie with a two-hour duration or a painting that requires more than a moment to soak in its beauty, but when something takes up a third of one's day, it forces a shift in engagement. Mindfulness, meditation, slowing down, switching off — all of these words and phrases apply to Sleep, both as a record and as a gig, and that always comes through in Max Richter's Sleep's concert footage.

When Richter speaks about Sleep, he mirrors these aforementioned ideas, and stresses how much he wants his listeners to disengage from the regular hustle and bustle while they're taking in his music. First released in early September 2015 and initially played live later that month, the album was obviously ahead of its time. The documentary is too, after premiering in November 2019, then playing Sundance in January 2020. Viewed now in the middle of a pandemic, it feels like a calming balm for the soul — as it was clearly always supposed to, even long before the world dissolved into its current status quo.

The interviews in Max Richter's Sleep aren't superfluous, of course, and neither are the film's dives into Mahr's Super 8mm-filled personal archive. Hearing not only about the immense amount of work that went into Sleep, but the ways in which Richter had to alter his own thinking to even compose it, ensures that viewers appreciate the magnum opus for its artistry and effort, and not just its effect and prescience. The tales that flesh out these chats, including Richter and Mahr's frank admissions about struggling to make a living as artists, and to afford to raise their family, help put the massive quest to bring Sleep to fruition into context. Also known for scoring films and television shows, Richter has everything from Waltz with Bashir, Perfect Sense, Lore and Wadjda to The Leftovers, an episode of Black Mirror, Mary, Queen of Scots and Ad Astra on his resume, but Sleep is undeniably a labour of love. This tranquil cinematic examination of his lengthy lullaby makes that plain, and plunges its audience into the album's dreamlike state. The ethereal and insightful movie's soundtrack is a highlight as well, naturally.

Top image: Stefan Hoederath.


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