From Homeless to Film Composer, ‘Skid Row Marathon’ Charts Amazing Journey (Exclusive Video)

The L.A. Film Festival documentary chronicles recovery through running — but for Ben Shirley, music played a big part, too

The documentary “Skid Row Marathon,” which premiered this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival, chronicles the unlikely path some recovering addicts, alcoholics and convicts have taken from homelessness to marathon running.

But in the case of one of its subjects, Ben Shirley, the path has been even stranger: He went from almost destroying his life through substance abuse to conducting music for the documentary in which he appears, with stops along the way to run a couple of marathons.

The central figure in director Mark Hayes’ film is Craig Mitchell, a Los Angeles superior court judge and former prosecutor who formed a running club for residents of downtown L.A.’s Midnight Mission, which helps men and women from Skid Row turn their lives around. In the film, Judge Mitchell takes three formerly homeless men to a marathon in Ghana, and then raises enough money to take 25 Midnight Mission runners to Rome. (All of them completed the race.)

The film focuses on several different members of the running club, including an aspiring painter, a single mother and Shirley, a former rock musician whose drinking destroyed his career, sent him to the verge of suicide and left him homeless.

“I just drank as much as I could hoping to die,” he said. “I lost everything when I went down [to Skid Row].”

Shirley has a double moment of triumph in the film, completing the marathon in Rome and also learning while he’s in Italy that he has been accepted into the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The film chronicles his attempts to overcome self-doubt and write and record a composition that will win his acceptance into the program – and composer Kim Planert, who wrote the score to “Skid Row Marathon,” not only used some of Shirley’s music in the film but also brought him into the studio to conduct a section of the score, as the exclusive video documents.

“It was something completely new to be able to ask a person that is on screen and actually lived through it, if the music is honest,” said Planert. “‘Does it have the right emotion? Are we doing the right thing here?’”

Hayes’ film is a straightforward documentary, but tremendously moving; the triumphs of these men and women are hard-fought, and their victories will rouse some viewers to action and bring others to tears. It’s not a spoiler to say that not some have significant setbacks, though the film has chosen to focus on the successes far more than the failures.

The film premiered at LAFF on Saturday and is now looking for distribution.