From music to movies: Local recording engineers produce award-winning documentary on elderly softball players

  • Danny Bernini, left, and Paul McNamara say their biggest satisfaction in making the film “The Relics” has been the reaction of the men and families they spent more than two years filming. ANDREW J. WHITAKER/GAZETTE STAFF

  • Danny Bernini says he was inspired by his father, Frank, who had been playing for many years in a 65-and-over softball league. ANDREW J. WHITAKER/GAZETTE STAFF

  • In this still from the film, The Relics,” members of the Western Massachusetts Relics get ready for a game. Image courtesy of Paul McNamara

  • Ed Gagnon of Chicopee, a member of the Relics, provides emotional wallop to the film. IMAGE COURTESY OF PAUL McNAMARA

  • In this still from the film “The Relics,” Ed Gagnon is at bat. Since he has bad knees, another player runs the bases for him when he hits. IMAGE COURTESY OF PAUL McNAMARA 

  • Stretch! In this still from the movie, members of the Relics warm up before a game. IMAGE COURTESY OF PAUL McNAMARA

Staff Writer
Published: 7/13/2016 2:53:48 PM

Danny Bernini and Paul McNamara know music.

The co-owners of SpiritHouse Productions in Northampton have recorded tracks for any number of players over the years, from singer/songwriter Martin Sexton to young rockers And The Kids and LuxDeluxe. Veteran musicians themselves, they’ve worked with different studios and released albums by other bands as well, like venerable rockers NRBQ.

But for one of their more recent projects, they got behind a video camera.

Bernini and McNamara are the producers and creative force behind “The Relics,” an impressionistic documentary about several men from a league for elderly softball players in the Springfield area. It’s a tribute to the national pastime, but even more so to the friendship and camaraderie of the men — and it’s also a meditation on aging and death.

The film, narrated by veteran actor Danny Aiello, has earned praise from several quarters and gained increased visibility this year. It won a 2016 Boston/New England Emmy Award for Best Narration, and was nominated for Best Documentary. It’s also aired on the New England Sports Network (NESN).

But Bernini and McNamara say their biggest satisfaction has been the reaction of the men and families they spent more than two years filming.

“The guys really have loved it,” McNamara said during a recent interview at the SpiritHouse recording studio. “Really, we made the film for them, to try and document this kind of special thing they have, so it’s great that they’ve enjoyed it.”

The roughly 25-minute movie is not a conventional documentary. The narration by Aiello (whose film credits include “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Moonstruck” and “Do the Right Thing”) consists entirely of lines of poetry and prose. The players are not specifically identified but instead are captured bantering with one another, warming up for a game or speaking directly to the camera about their experiences.

And they’ve had some experiences. Team members in the league’s oldest division are in their 80s and late 70s but still take pleasure in a game that some first played as boys during the Great Depression; some have been friends for years.

Today they’re the aged Boys of Summer, still enthusiastic even if reaching for a ground ball strains the back or running the bases brings an ache to stiff knees. 

That intensity and joy might best be summed up by Walter Darcey of Tolland, Connecticut, who describes how he’s impatiently waiting for his doctor’s OK to get back on the diamond after major heart surgery: “I live to play this game.”

Preserving the moment

The inspiration for the film came from Bernini’s father, Frank, who had been playing for many years in a 65-and-over softball league in the Springfield area. As his father continued to play well into his late 70s — he’s 86 today — Bernini said he marveled at him and his teammates and wondered, along with McNamara, if there were some way, as he put it, “to preserve the moment.

“It was great to watch them play, to see their friendship, and kind of acknowledge that,” Bernini said. “But we kept thinking, ‘What else can we do?’ ”

Today, he and McNamara note that what’s known as the Western Mass Relics’ Senior Softball League, started in 1994 with just two teams, has grown to 217 players from 43 towns (including some from the Valley and, like Darcey, from northern Connecticut). Nearly 25 players are 80 years or older, and 90 are at least 70 years old. The teams play in Ludlow.

The two friends decided they’d make a documentary, though it seemed a daunting task at first, even if they had some experience filming short videos for some of the bands they recorded.

“We started looking at books like ‘Documentaries for Dummies,’ that kind of thing,” McNamara said with a laugh.

But they also got key support from friends like musician and music video producer Spookie Daly, who became the documentary’s director. Other people did the camerawork, and Bernini handled the live sound, with help from Andy Turrett, a production sound mixer in Northampton.

McNamara says they accumulated hours and hours of footage — they even followed the players and their wives to a softball tournament in Cape Cod with other elderly teams from around the state — but weren’t sure how to pull it together into a narrative. 

“We were still looking for that spark, some way to tie it all together and capture that common experience, give it some gravitas,” he said.

At one point, he recalled the poem “Nature” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and thought its ending lines seemed an apt metaphor for the slow winding down of life:

“So Nature deals with us, and takes away /  Our playthings one by one, and by the hand / Leads us to rest so gently, that we go / Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay, / Being too full of sleep to understand / How far the unknown transcends the what we know.”

That, McNamara said, “was kind of the ‘Pow!’ moment.”

The producers added other poetry and prose, including from baseball writers like Roger Angel and former Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti and poets such as Matthew Arnold, a 19th-century British writer. Aiello, whom Bernini had met through a recording project, signed on to read the work as narrator.

Bernini and McNamara composed and performed much of the music for the soundtrack. But they also got a contribution from the New York Yankees’ former star outfielder Bernie Williams, an excellent guitarist who plays “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and from Charles Steinberg, a longtime executive for the Red Sox who plays his original song “Baseball” on piano.

As the end nears 

As much as “The Relics” documents elderly men enjoying a young person’s game, the film also offers a poignant and honest look at what it means to be approaching the end of life. Lou Massoia, of Feeding Hills, recalls a game in which, playing second base, he fielded a ground ball and flipped it to his shortstop to try and force an opposing base runner at second.

“He took the throw, stepped on the bag, and went down,” Massoia says, looking a little haunted. “He had a heart attack — he died right there on the field.” 

Ed Gagnon of Chicopee, who’s in his 80s, provides some of the film’s most emotional moments. With a small dog sitting in his lap, he describes how he’s had “a good life, good family” but, a few years earlier, had become badly depressed and began contemplating suicide by taking sleeping pills

“It’s hard to explain it,” he says. “[Doctors] said this can happen to senior people … But in the end, I wanted to continue to live and enjoy what I had left.”

And when the end comes, Gagnon adds, maybe he can just “get on with the Lord and see what he has to say. Maybe we can play softball up there. Maybe my knees won’t hurt there!”

“Or the devil,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe I can play on his team, I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see!”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

To see a trailer for the film “The Relics,” visit www.facebook.com/The-Relics-145027799368/?fref=nf.


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