When experienced documentary short director Mark Bone started working with the ASD Band, he didn’t realize he was about to make his first feature-length documentary.
Then, he got to know the band members — and everything changed.
“It was four people, and four amazing, interesting and completely different people,” he said.
“So we had to take time with each character, and it became very evident early on that, oh, this is a feature.”
The four people at the heart of Bone’s documentary are the members of the ASD (or Autism Spectrum Disorder) Band: lead singer Rawan Tuffaha, guitarist and vocalist Jackson Begley, drummer Spenser Murray, and piano player Ron Adea.
The four band members are all on the spectrum, and together with their musical director Maury LauFoy on bass, they’re the focus of Okay! (The ASD Band Film).
The documentary is playing on Friday and Sunday at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, as part of the Hot Docs festival. It can also be streamed online from anywhere in Canada for five days starting on Saturday.
ASD Band got its start through a charity called Jake’s House, which supports families living with autism. Three of the members met onstage in April 2019, while performing Give a Little Bit with Roger Hodgson of Supertramp during a concert in Toronto organized for World Autism Awareness Day.
Watch | Director Mark Bone and ASD Band members talk about their new documentary Okay!
“They got us to come up onstage at the Sony Centre at a sold-out show and perform that song with [Hodgson], and there was like a big orchestra behind us so it was really cool,” Murray said. “At that point we didn’t know that the band was going to be a thing, we thought it was just going to be a one time thing.”
But he said it was easy to transition from that show to working together as a band.
“Every time we jammed together it all seemed to work. We all got along well musically.”
Fast-forward to 2022. In February, the band played its first show at Toronto’s Opera House and it also released a six song EP, the making of which is the focus of Okay!
Begley said he’s happy with how the group was represented on screen.
“One big problem with autism in the media is how many stereotypes there are, mostly from ignorance and stigma, and how Hollywood movies and TV [have] like a classic mould of what they think autistic people are,” he said. “I’m in full support of any opportunity for people to see real autistic people telling their story.”
The storytelling experience was grounded in honesty and authenticity, said Andrew Simon, executive producer of Okay! and the ASD Band’s manager.
“What we didn’t want to do is … glorify what it’s like,” Simon said in an interview. “It is a very inspirational story, but that’s not by design — that is just by how it happened.
Honesty is also reflected in the music itself, Simon said.
The band “did all the arrangements and we were there to kind of help them along the way. But the music is genuinely theirs.”
Tuffaha wrote the song Fireflies about supporting people on the spectrum — and she said she’s hopeful the group will gain more exposure for its music.
Watch | The ASD Band performs Fireflies
“We don’t go around things halfway with all our songs,” she said. “We work really hard on them, and it shows a piece of us.”
For Adea, the experience has been a bit overwhelming but also good. Outside of the ASD Band, he’s a concert pianist and can be heard playing Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude and Fantaisie-Impromptu in the film.
He said he dreams about going on tour and travelling, hoping to inspire other musicians on the spectrum. But he’s also staying grounded and said he’s focusing on how the band can help him become more independent.
Simon hopes audiences keep an open mind heading into the film.
“When I started working with the band, I had certain thoughts in my head of what being on the spectrum was all about. Not only from a visual standpoint but also from the family standpoint. And I just learned along the way,” he said.
“They can do anything; they’ve proven that.”
Murray believes that’s the message behind both the documentary and the band itself.
“It’s a good way to inspire people with autism, or any disability really — to show that you can do something if you put your mind to it,” he said. “You find people that you gel with and have support, you can pretty much make anything happen.”