Director Alex Steyermark/2014
DVD release date: October 25, 2016/Kino Lorber
Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright set out to help us rediscover the music that inspired the American songbook. Inspired by a web series, The 78 Movie Project is a travelogue in many ways as our documentarians set across the United States recording modern day musicians (both some you might know, and many you won’t) who are singing older songs from America’s past. To record them, they encourage the musicians to set up shop in random locations while recording them on an old 78 r.p.m. lacquer discs recorder.
As the artists record, we get to watch as Lavinia Jones Wright briskly whisks a brush over the grooves being made by the portable 78 r.p.m. machine as it records the sounds of the room. This particular machine dates back to about 1941 based on the serial numbers of the device, and each machine of that era would manipulate the sound a bit differently, giving the recording a unique, and yet “older” feel, despite being recorded in the modern day.
Many of the experts of this type of recording device, as well as the musical archivists, are older, so it will be important for many in the younger generations to step into these roles to ensure that the legacy of our musical past is preserved, and then passed on to future generations.
Artists often would set up around the microphone which would capture everything from voice to instrumentation. Often, the background serves as a soundtrack to the recordings themselves. Various landscapes of urban and rural settings settle into the organic fabric of the recordings providing a time capsule to yesteryear, in the midst of today.
In addition to simply recording various artists, the filmmakers also spend some time in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area speaking to various experts about these types of recordings, such as Matt Barton and Todd Harvey. One of the most fascinating parts of this is seeing the many archives at the Library of Congress that exist both on 78’s as well as 33 1/3 r.p.m. The entire catalog of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, as well as others from various genres such as Jazz, Blues, Gospel, and Country, are present in the Library of Congress, including the original dust sleeves. It is an amazing and daunting task of not only housing this collection, but being responsible for making sure that it never dies out.
The restoration process is given some screen time, thankfully, as we see what painstaking efforts Wayne Cory of Apollo Masters Audiodiscs goes to, to not only maintain these priceless treasures, but also, in many ways restore these old discs to being “as new” as possible. The conditions of many of the recordings are in terrible shape, so its nice to see the process that will allow much of these recordings to be heard again. Many of the experts of this type of recording device, as well as the musical archivists, are older, so it will be important for many in the younger generations to step into these roles to ensure that the legacy of our musical past is preserved, and then passed on to future generations.
It is interesting to see the song choices that are recorded as the filmmakers travel the country. They are as varied as the artists themselves. Several of the artists include: The Bo-Keys, John Reilly (the actor known as John C. Reilly), Ella Mae Bowen, Tom Brosseau, Chris Coleman, John Doe, The Easy Leaves, Little Wings, Victoria Williams, Holly Williams, Ben Vaughn, Percy Wiggins, and many more. Their song choices extend from early French songs that became the foundation for modern Zydeco, Hymns and Spirituals ranging from traditional church hymns to Hank Williams’ classic “I Saw the Light“, to the deep Blues of the Mississippi Delta.
While the documentary is extremely fascinating, it does seem to lose momentum about half-way through. Having been a web series, the move to nearly 2 hour feature film seems to be a bit too much. In an episodic format, it would be easier to focus on one theme, or even genre of music for that episode, while exploring another for a future episode. While what the filmmakers do here ultimately works, it may not be as effective as they might have intended. What works best is just seeing the artists sit down with this machine and see what is produced as it captures the heart and soul of their artistic expression. What was equally as gratifying is seeing how the artists responded to hearing the recording afterwards and getting a sense of the shared history of modern artistic expression with the songs and recording devices of the past.
The DVD of this documentary, The 78 Project Movie, is being released by Kino Lorber today, October 25, 2016. There are very few extras to speak of. I would have wished to have seen maybe a compilation of all of the recordings they featured in the film, just one after the other, as an appreciation of the music they are seeking to celebrate. Also, it would have been nice to have heard from the filmmakers on their experience of traveling the nation recording all of these unique and diverse group of artists. All in all, The 78 Project Movie is a fascinating look at our musical past.
The images used in the review are present only as a reference to the film and are not meant to reflect the actual image quality of the DVD.