Hand Judge Gordon Sullivan the banjo. When you wave it over your head, he gets nervous.
"When you want genuine music—music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky…invoke the glory-beaming banjo!"—Mark Twain
When I had the chance to review Throw Down Your Heart—a documentary about a banjo player going back to Africa, this was the only real negative I could find: "If I have one complaint about the film, it's that I would have liked more of a focus on the musicology behind the banjo and its origins. Very little is said about the history of the banjo in the film,…some commentary from historians, either of the instruments or the music, would have been occasionally helpful to put the entire journey in context."
Thanks to Give Me the Banjo, there's a documentary that fills in exactly the gaps I was talking about in that review. Now fans of banjos and documentaries have a place to go to learn more about the instrument.
Generously dotted with banjo music, Give me the Banjo takes a biographical approach to its title instrument. Starting with its roots as an African gourd instrument and adoption by minstrel shows, the film traces the rise of the banjo after the Civil War as it went from a homemade instrument to a mass-produced cash cow for both manufacturers and players. As the instrument falls into some obscurity during the Depression, the film traces the great players of the twentieth century, from Charlie Poole to Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs. Mixing interviews with musicians and historians with archival film, songs, and photos, Give Me the Banjo demonstrates how vital a force the instrument remains today.
One thing that Give Me the Banjo makes clear is that the banjo has never really left American culture. Moreover, the instrument is on the rise as new players connect with the roots of their folk music and take the banjo in new directions. For those looking to tap into the history of the instrument, this documentary is highly, highly recommended. It offers both a strong history and a series of musicians that interested viewers can track down to hear the ways the banjo has been used throughout the past couple of centuries. For the depth and breadth of information Give Me the Banjo presents it should be commended. Steve Martin is the perfect choice as narrator, and the footage of him playing is remarkable.
As a documentary, however, Give Me the Banjo has a few flaws. Of course these flaws will likely only be apparent to those (like me) who have some familiarity with the instrument. The major problem the film has is that it kinda falls off in the last third. The film would have been better served if it had been a 60-minute documentary about the roots of the banjo, stopping right around Earl Scruggs. Alternatively, if the film had been 20 minutes longer, it could have covered more modern banjo players more effectively. As it is now, the first hour is spectacular, offering a rich history of the instrument vividly illustrated with pictures, songs, and film footage. About the time we get to Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs, though, the film feels like it's hurrying through the rest of the twentieth century, giving brief profiles of people like Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck without really delving into what makes them special as players. In contrast, loving attention is given to figures like Charlie Poole and Pete Seeger. The rushing effect in the final parts of the film is a little disorienting, and doesn't allow the film to build up to a proper conclusion that demonstrates the continuing importance of the banjo today.
Of course that makes the film sound much worse than it is. Give Me the Banjo is a solid documentary. Even with the weaker final third, I still enjoyed the film. More importantly, the people I watched it with (who don't play the banjo like I do) enjoyed it as well. The young girl I watched the film with said afterward, "I want to learn to play the banjo," so this flick is doing something right.
The DVD itself is also pretty excellent. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is clean and bright during contemporary segments, and the extensive archival material has been transferred with love and care. The 5.1 surround track is even more impressive, with a solid balance between the voiceover, interview dialogue, and banjo music. In a nice touch, the liner notes for this release include a list of all the songs featured in the film, in order, with both performers and composers listed to make it easier to track down songs you might enjoy. Extras include more interview footage and performances by some of the groups featured in the film itself.
Though the banjo has a checkered past (tied, as it is, to racism), it doesn't have to remain the butt of hillbilly jokes. Give Me the Banjo can help the instrument avoid that fate. All those who only know the banjo from Deliverance or Hee Haw would do well to watch this documentary to see just how significant the instrument has been in American music. For those already interested in the banjo, this documentary is a great way to learn more and maybe pick up a few names to track down in the future. Experienced players or devotees might find the final third's glossing over of modern banjo master problematic, but even they will probably learn enough in the first hour to make this disc worth a purchase.
Not Guilty. Keep pickin'.
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