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Musical minds: How a documentary on local Hot Tracks show is making autism more familiar

Nick Van Zanten, left, and J.B. West, right.

With the documentary Musical Minds, two filmmakers hope to share the lives of two local people with autism with a wider community. Meet JB and Nick, passionate music critics, weekly hosts of the Hot Tracks show on WCET, and singers of a song all their own as Zinta Aistars learns why this film had to be made.
JB wears a cap and one of his several Detroit Lions sweatshirts. His grin is wide and bright.

“Have faaaaaith!” he sings to his best friend Nick, and he holds his hand in a circle over Nick’s head like a halo, drawing it up toward the heavens.  

It cracks Nick up, but he shakes his head. He’s done being a Lions fan, he says. Decades of losing, that’s enough. He’s given up on his team, at least until they start showing signs of improvement.

The two are sitting in the back room at WCET-TV, a public access station in Hudsonville, a small town about a half-hour drive northwest of Grand Rapids. Their banter is light and fun, as it will be once the camera starts rolling for the half-hour show they tape every week, and have been taping for 13 years, called Hot Tracks.

JB West, 38, and Nick Van Zanten, 29, both have autism. To most, including their fans, they are simply known as JB and Nick. They will tell you: they fall into the high-functioning spectrum of autism, a developmental disorder of the brain expressed as difficulty with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 American children fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, a tenfold increase in the past 40 years.

James Grochowalski, now 27, was a Byron Center High School intern at WCET-TV when he first met JB and Nick. He became intrigued with their friendship, with their easy banter on the Hot Tracks show.

Nick Van Zanten, left, Andrew Bedinger, middle, J.B. West, right.Grochowalski today lives in Las Vegas, where he works as media director for a church, but he has maintained his connection to JB and Nick both on a professional and personal level. Grochowalski and friend Andrew Bedinger, 27, of Grand Rapids, have just finished filming a documentary about JB and Nick, called Musical Minds.

“We followed JB and Nick for, oh, I don’t know, four, five years, filming their everyday lives,” Grochowalski says. “The documentary is more a slice of life than informative. Our push was to make people more familiar with autism.”

When Grochowalski first met JB, JB had already been working at WCET-TV for some time, helping director Allan Dodds film a program called This Week in Jenison. He has earned the title of production assistant.

“It was probably Allan, the director, who first connected JB and Nick,” says Bedinger. “JB had an idea for a show about music, so Hot Tracks is all about their favorite music, mostly from the 80s and 90s, and rating songs they like.”

Or don’t like. Neither of the two have any inhibitions about giving a musical number a low rating. Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t. Each show concludes with the two hitting the stage with their own enthused dance numbers, or “air jams,” playing air guitar, lip syncing, and generally having a heck of a good time.

“We didn’t know much about autism when we first met them,” adds Bedinger, who now owns his own production company, Soapbox Pictures, producer of the documentary about JB and Nick. “Neither James nor I have a personal connection with anyone who has autism. So filming the documentary was very much a learning experience for us. It became our goal to open the eyes of others just like ours were opened.”

The documentary includes clips of the two friends on stage during Hot Tracks, but perhaps more importantly, follows them also through more private moments. Each talks on camera about his relationships, about romance, the girl that got away and the one who came back. Nick shows his exercise routine and takes the audience through his father’s workshop. JB leads a tour through his home and talks about the fun of signing autographs.

“One of the things I learned from them is what loyal friends they can be,” says Bedinger. “People with autism can be very routine-oriented, and they can struggle with relationships, but people with autism want the same things we all want: love, acceptance, family. I thought they couldn’t interact with people because of autism, but doing the documentary changed my mind. That’s the sort of thing I want someone watching the film to understand.”

With the documentary finished, Bedinger says, all four maintain close relationships. “We talk weekly. We talk about all kinds of things.”

Finally, Bedinger says, he says he hopes the film will educate people that “those with autism may be different in some ways, but they are less different than you might think.”

Grochowalski adds: “They also want you to laugh with them. People wonder if it’s okay to laugh when you watch them, but they want you to laugh. They enjoy making people laugh.”

Hoping to share the documentary with a larger audience, Bedinger and Grochowalski ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds, approximately $20,000 to cover filming costs, licensing and submissions to distributors. Their goal is to get the documentary into film festivals, then place it with distributors such as Netflix or Amazon Prime.

“If we don’t raise the funds we need with this campaign, at least we’ve learned a lot from doing it,” says Bedinger.

“And we’ll try another campaign again soon,” says Grochowalski.

The show must go on, all agree. Hot Tracks continues to air with JB and Nick, and the message their everyday lives send is one that is worthy of the fight to get it to its wider audience.

“We’re still working on the licensing, for instance,” says Bedinger. “There are a lot of music cuts throughout the documentary. We’re learning a lot about marketing and making contacts. This Kickstarter campaign got us the feedback we needed—and it’s positive.”

“So far, this has all been on our own dime,” Grochowalski says. “We want people to be aware of the spectrum of autism, not shy away from interacting from people who might be a bit different. People see this documentary and how happy Nick and JB are, how free of inhibitions, happy in the simple things. You watch them for a little while, and you can’t help falling in love with these guys.”
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and correspondent for WMUK 102.1 FM Arts and More program. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photography by Adam Bird
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