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« "Borg/McEnroe" to Open TIFF | Main | Jeanne Moreau (1928-2017) »
Tuesday
Aug012017

Doc Corner: Three Music Docs Cover A Century of American Culture

by Glenn Dunks

As Madonna once opined, music makes the people come together! There's literally centuries of the stuff to cover so it's little surprise we get a lot of documentaries on the subject - and we didn't even get to cover the four-hour Grateful Dead doc from earlier in the year, and who knows if we'll get to cover Chavela, Tokyo Idols, Give Me Future: Major Lazor in Cuba, G-Funk, The Go-Betweens: Right Here, Revolution of Sound: Tangerine Dream or any of the others that are fluttering around the festival and VOD circuit.

So this week rather than just covering one, I'm looking at three!

RUMBLE: THE INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD

The history and influence of Native Americans in music is explored by director Catherine Bainbridge and co-director Alfonso Maiorana in Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. Taking its name in part from Link Wray’s famed 1958 instrumental (the only of its kind to be banned), it is perhaps easy to align the films with other popular music history docs such as 20 Feet From Stardom and Waiting for Sugarman, but doing so only highlight this new feature’s shortcomings.

More Rumble + East Bay punk and the woman who made the sounds of '80s after the jump...

Part of what made those earlier Oscar-winning films so successful was the way they layered their broader musical history lessons on top of a more focused, compelling arc. Bainbridge – who has made a career of similarly themed works including her Peabody Award-winning Reel Injun –  has been blessed a little-known slice of history that is rich and varied, but lumps it into an unfortunately flat presentation that makes little to no effort to place its stories into anything but the most basic of introductory formats.

Aided little by surprisingly lacklustre archival video, its uninteresting almost chapter-like structure does its subject a disservice. Not helping are recurring appearances by the likes of Martin Scorsese and the E Street Band’s Steve Van Zandt at the expense of other talking heads, primarily experts and actual Native American musicians. Names like the Village People’s Felipe Rose (whose father was Lakota Sioux) aren’t mentioned, even though the 1970s’ appropriation of the Native American aesthetic is briefly raised. Jimi Hendrix, whose paternal grandmother was one-quarter Cherokee, figures prominently, although the element I found particularly most interesting was in the discussion about 1920s African American soul music’s liberal borrowing from Native American sound.

TURN IT AROUND: THE STORY OF EAST BAY PUNK

Compare Rumble to Corbett Redford’s Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk and again, its flaws become greater in their obviousness. Despite being one of literally dozens upon dozens of documentaries about individual punk scenes, bands, or record labels, Redford’s debut nonetheless has a tighter grip on the story it wants to tell. It is also significant to note that it places a deserved recurring spotlight onto the scene’s women and LGBTQ punk artists, as well as the inclusive attitudes of those who found themselves building a flourishing punk scene in the area around San Francisco’s East Bay.

Stretched across two and a half hours, its attention span is often fleeting considering the more than 100 people involved. But it is this very scattered energy, not too coincidentally reminiscent of a punk LP, thanks to Greg Schneider’s editing that gives the film its impressive fast-paced rhythm. Its length demands attention in the way some far less comprehensive, but easily digested 90-minute documentaries (like 2015’s disappointing Salad Days) never could. Narration by Iggy Pop is unnecessary, but the strength here is in its breadth and the propulsive energy it brings to the linear story of a scene.

A LIFE IN WAVES

The last film to discuss is Brett Whitcomb’s sleek and colourful A Life in Waves about the life and career of pioneering electronic musician and sound recordist Suzanne Ciani. There’s little revolutionary in its filmmaking, but I appreciated the way it reconfigures late 1970s and ‘80s nostalgia by highlighting the individual sounds of pop culture rather than the pop culture itself and the efforts that went into the familiar memories. In the light of Stranger Things’ popularity, in particular its effective opening credits music, a film like A Life in Waves actually helps shine an effective light on a craft that is little discussed.

It is a unique perspective that flutters between her acceptance of an honorary award at Wellesley, her newfound popularity among younger audiences, and the entertaining archival footage-heavy retrospective of her career. Beginning with her musical appearance on David Letterman’s chat show, Ciani’s contributions to ad campaigns for Cola-Cola, Atari, and General Electric Dishwashers are given equal weight as her film works including The Stepford Wives and The Incredible Shrinking Woman and are placed alongside her solo recordings that took her new age music to big suggest in Japan. She is an enjoyable presence on screen, her enthusiasm reinforced by her obvious expertise. Her efforts on the Star Wars disco album go sadly unexplored – for better or worse, I’m not quite sure.

Release: Rumble and Turn It Around are currently touring the country and A Life in Waves goes to VOD this weekend.

Oscar Chances: Rumble has the best shot and they are definitely planning a campaign and like most boomer music docs should probably be taken seriously to at least make the 15-wide long-list.

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Reader Comments (2)

Looking at this post in conjunction with the LBJ post, makes me think of Buffy St. Marie, Oscar winner, SAG Lifetime Achievement Award, singer, performer, song writer, activist, Native American spokesperson.

St. Marie talks of her blacklisting, and how Lyndon B. Johnson wrote letters on White House stationery to radio stations, praising them for not playing St. Marie's music.

I've seen Buffy perform live, and she completely carries you to another place. What an artist.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Adri, agreed. Maybe a film about her would have been better than seeing her story truncated.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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