They rise at 4:30 every morning. They pray more than six hours a day. They’ve devoted their lives to God. And they’re pop stars.
A small group of Cistercian monks in Austria made music history recently when their album of Gregorian chant climbed England’s pop charts, landing in the Top Ten for two months and selling more than a million copies worldwide. Directed by Dana Perry (HBO’s “Boy Interrupted”), the documentary TOP TEN MONKS takes an unprecedented look at the daily lives of these unlikely celebrities, who rarely allow cameras inside their walls.
The story of the monks’ success began when Universal Music noticed an increase in back catalogue sales of Gregorian chant, and placed ads in notable Catholic newspapers searching for the most beautiful sacred voices. Father Karl of Stift Heiligenkreuz Abbey, a 12th-century monastery near Vienna, sent the company a link to a website and a YouTube video of the monks’ singing, which Tom Lewis, artist development manager at Universal, calls “some of the most beautiful Gregorian chant we heard.”
Sung in Latin, the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, Gregorian chant is composed in a free musical rhythm that rises and falls in accord with the inner meaning of each piece. The peaceful and otherworldly – to some ears “eerie” – tonality of Gregorian chant, and its free rhythm, make it the perfect musical form for unfolding the meaning of the sacred texts that are sung in it.
While a monk’s primary activity is prayer, which the monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz have engaged in for 900 years, TOP TEN MONKS dives deeply into their everyday lives, dispelling misconceptions about life in a monastery. Rather than a place of constriction and monotony, Stift Heiligenkreuz Abbey enables the monks to strive for lives that are open and calm, healthy and happy. These monks are fully engaged in the modern world, using technologies such as cell phones and the Internet, as well as running a number of businesses, including a gas station and a sawmill.
Their sudden celebrity finds them in the headlines and on TV, but the monks are not inspired by money or fame, believing that for many people, Gregorian chant are an escape from and an answer to the pressures of modern life. Father Karl explains, “The music not only calms, it also gives strength. It has an emotional dimension. It is joy and fear, praise and mourning, jubilation and thanksgiving.” He also believes that many people “find it interesting, cool and exotic when they see monks in long white robes, praying together and singing in Latin.”
Explaining the monks’ popularity, Tom Lewis says, “There’s a lot of people out there whose musical appetites aren’t necessarily being served by popular culture. And when something fresh comes along, the appetite for it is incredibly strong.”
Dana Perry is a noted documentary filmmaker whose HBO documentary “Boy Interrupted” premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. She also executive produced the four-part documentary series “Sex: The Revolution.” With husband and partner Hart Perry, she previously produced and directed “The Drug Years” (2006), a four-hour documentary exploration of illicit drugs and popular culture. Nominated for two IDA Awards and a Prism Award, “The Drug Years” received a Cine Golden Eagle, Telly Award and High Times “Stony” Award, and was exhibited at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
TOP TEN MONKS is a Perry Films Production; produced and directed by Dana Perry; director of photography, Hart Perry; original score, Michael Bacon; senior editor, Jennifer McGarrity; editor, Alyse Ardell Spiegel. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.