Sweet Old Song

PBS Premiere: July 30, 2002Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement

I knew Barbara fairly well, and was getting to know Howard when I first talked with them about making a documentary in the mid-1990s. I had always been intrigued by their individual personalities and was even more curious about their collaborative efforts in art and music, but I thought it would be a real struggle to make a film that effectively portrayed both Howard and Barbara while doing justice to the dynamic creative spirit that ties the two of them together. I knew there was something beyond words that was driving this story.

It was their children's book that initially grabbed my attention. When I first started college I also wanted to write and illustrate children's books, so I was instantly drawn to Howard's illustrations of Barbara's childhood. They are such incredible gestures of love, personal resonance, and creative connection. Then I saw the huge box of love letters he had sent her over the years - each was a unique work of art, decorated with elaborate paintings and poems. These illustrations revealed so much about their relationship, those aspects that are most moving and almost impossible to describe. That was the initial spark, but the story took on a life of its own and I quickly realized I could make a film that combined my interests in oral history and visual representation, as well as the written word.

I also thought that people of all ages could learn how to get the most out of their own lives by watching how Howard and Barbara live theirs. I wanted to share that part of their relationship and invite people to be surprised and impressed in the same ways that I was, to see how Howard and Barbara never allowed themselves to be limited by the expectations of others. How, even as children growing up in large families with no money, they had confidence in their creative ideas and always pursued them. That is probably the most important lesson - understanding the power of creative expression, to see how it opens doors throughout your life - doors to education, self-understanding, and memories that you might have lost.

Leah Mahan, Director