Judge Norman Short waves dismissively in the general direction of this tribute to Woody Guthrie.
This Machine Kills Fascists.
Such is the message emblazoned on the guitar of Woody Guthrie on the cover of Man in the Sand, a documentary about the making of "Mermaid Avenue," two albums of previously unpublished songs by the itinerant troubadour of the 1930s-'50s. Nora Guthrie, daughter of the singer/songwriter, looked for someone to perform some of the hundreds of songs Woody had left behind. Since he was self-taught and did not read music, most of the compositions no longer have melody lines attached, and only memory can provide that information. Finally she turned to Billy Bragg, a British folk singer with a penchant for political content to produce the songs. He in turn collaborated with the band Wilco and singer Nancy Merchant to work up and perform those compositions. Palm Pictures has produced the documentary, which is interesting when it concerns the influential Woody Guthrie, but falls flat when it sticks to the mundane making of an album.
Facts of the Case
Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912, but left before finishing high school on an odyssey of adventure. Riding the rails to California, he became a musical spokesman for the repressed migrant community with songs such as "This Land is Your Land." Often dismissed as a Communist sympathizer, his music spoke more to class differences, and the plight of the poor but working class. Though he was certainly a left-winger, he never joined the Communist Party. He did remain a thorn in the side of the rich while standing up for the poor. He joined the merchant marine during WWII, surviving three U-boat attacks that sunk his ships. After the war he fathered Arlo (who followed in his footsteps as a radical folks singer), Joady, and Nora, and lived on Coney Island, on Mermaid Avenue. When Nora was still a toddler, Woody began to succumb to Huntington's Disease, the hereditary malady that killed his mother. He continued to perform for some time, but eventually alcoholism and the disease rendered him unable to sing or even write. He died in 1967, but his music influenced a whole new generation of musicians such as Bob Dylan.
My own father and Woody Guthrie came out of the same mold: country/folk musicians from the Depression era. My father was a union man, a local president who tried to make a better life for the workers he represented. Woody supported such efforts with his music. My father might have been surprised to hear of these similarities, since he was far more conservative in his political outlook. The similarities largely end there, as my father was content to play the music written by others, while Woody wrote his music to inspire and influence the thinking of others.
Billy Bragg's music also has that purpose; he has supported unionization efforts in Britain with his songs. It was for this reason that Nora Guthrie sought him out to perform from his catalog of unpublished work. My biggest surprise is that Arlo Guthrie didn't undertake this task instead, but Billy does a fine job of interpreting the songs and recreating the music. The American band Wilco likewise finds their own take on the words, providing a much more modern sound but the same heart.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All that said, this documentary bored the hell out of me. It had moments when Nora would talk about Woody's life that moved me, but most of it was Billy on his trip to landmarks where Woody lived and talked to the townspeople. Other parts about the making of the album itself were slow and rather uninspired shots of people in the studio. Worse was the fact that those studio sessions never finished a song, only giving us snippets of what they were doing. It seems as if they really just want us to buy the Mermaid Avenue records if we want the music. The end is a concert performance of one of the songs in its entirety, and there are five bonus audio tracks of demo reels of some songs, but otherwise this is a documentary posing as a musical disc. The whole thing seemed like it should have been an extra feature on a concert DVD of Billy Bragg and Wilco rather than the content for a disc by itself.
The disc itself is barely adequate in the technical departments. The image quality ranges from decent to poor when handheld camcorders are used for some of the footage. The soundtrack is an inadequate Dolby surround, but is decent enough for the music. The interview footage is pretty bad; you can hear the answers to the questions but the questions themselves are asked too far from the microphone to be heard clearly. This results in straining to hear what was asked. A documentary depends on being able to hear what is said (come to think of it, every disc does), and when you can't hear it all clearly you're already doomed. The lack of English subtitles means there is no way to figure out what is said short of turning up the volume to ear shattering levels to make out half the interview and then be shouted out from the answers. The extra content consists of the bonus music tracks, discographies for Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg, and Wilco, and previews of other Palm Pictures discs such as Dark Days, Free Tibet, Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation, and Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense.
The music of Woody Guthrie is the real draw, and if you want that you should buy the Mermaid Avenue albums (Vol. I and II). The disc is a bit of a chore to get what good information there is. I can't give my recommendation for purchase, but it might make a good rental for Woody Guthrie fans.
Palm Pictures is indicted for failure to provide an intelligible soundtrack for the questions asked in the interview footage. The documentary itself is acquitted without comment.
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