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Thursday 13 June 2013

Music City USA (2013)

Director: Chris McDaniel
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.

Important note: after talking with director Chris McDaniel at and after the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival, it became clear that this review is of an early version of Music City USA. The film still isn't complete, but the version that screened at Jerome was notably different from the one I reviewed. While I haven't seen the longer version and so can't yet update my review, it is clear that some of my key concerns are addressed. For a start, it's 25 minutes longer, which addresses one concern. McDaniel also states that the film's goal, as defined in the opening narration of the version I saw, is not present in the longer cut; there's a lot more flood footage; and there are many more interview subjects. I'll endeavour to watch the current version and update my review accordingly, but in the meantime should note that this review reflects a early version of a work in progress that won for Best Documentary at Jerome.

Selected to screen at both the Phoenix Film Festival and the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival and with a solid selection of country stars old and new interviewed on screen (one glance down the IMDb credits is enough to impress), Music City USA ought to have been a decent documentary. I even like the poster. However, while there are certainly interesting moments here and there, it can only be viewed as a disappointment. For a start it only runs a scant 62 minutes, including the end credits, which would have been short for a B movie at a drive in back in the sixties, let alone a feature film nowadays. The impressive set of interviewees cycle through quickly, so we discover a few very familiar faces who tell most of the stories on offer. Quite a bit of the footage is reused at odd points too, so we often feel like we're in trapped a loop. Worst of all, it proclaims its goals at the beginning of the film, but then promptly ignores them for the most part.

The title of the film comes from a common nickname for Nashville, Tennessee, famous worldwide as the home of country music. For a while, the film lives up to its title but not its goals, because it explores for twenty minutes the history of the city and its connection to country music and music generally. Some of this is worthwhile material, especially to someone who might have an interest but not a grounding in the subject, but it's hardly going to tell a country fan anything they don't already know. Ricky Skaggs tells us quickly that the roots of Music City date back to 1925 when a Nashville radio station, WSM, began broadcasting a show called the Grand Ole Opry, an hour long barn dance that's still running today. For ten minutes, everyone else agrees with him, not adding a heck of a lot to the story in the meantime. The Mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean, does bring up the Jubilee Singers from Fisk University who sang for Queen Victoria, but that's about it.

The rest is pretty obvious. Once the show was in place, musicians came to play on it. Then came the songwriters and the studios and the publishers and more musicans and the whole thing began to feed itself. There are odd nuggets here from people who matter and it's good to see key visuals like shots outside the Ryman Auditorium, 'the mother church', in and amongst the talking heads, but mostly it's the same thing repeated in different voices from different mouths for ten minutes at a time. Also, there's music behind those voices that's often too high in the mix, meaning that it's hard to hear some of the commentary. It's like trying to follow a conversation in a noisy bar; we strain to hear what's being said, but sometimes our toes tap too much and we lose focus. It's fair to say that this is less of a problem later in the film but it's annoying early for a while, surely enough to turn some viewers away, especially as the film isn't doing what it says it would.
The thing is that this isn't a film about Music City, USA, at least not specifically. It's a film about a disastrous two days of torrential rain that caused massive devastation across a number of states in June 2010, and the work that was done to clean up the city afterwards. Two days of rain isn't much, you might say. Well, it was a lot of rain. Some areas received more than nineteen inches in just two days and the Cumberland River overflowed the flood control barriers the US Army Corps of Engineers put in place in 1937, deluging Nashville in what has been described as a 'thousand year flood'. It's sad to say that I had to look a lot of this up later, as director Chris McDaniel didn't get to it until twenty minutes in, a third of the running time gone, then skipped over much of the factual detail. To be fair, at the beginning, he narrates that, 'I made this film to document the role the entertainment community held throughout this tragedy,' but that comes even later.

The film is broken up into six chapters, averaging about ten minutes each. The point of the film, in McDaniel's own words, is chapter four. By that point, we're halfway through and we've been told why Nashville attracted musicians, how diverse its music is and a little about the flood. Sadly it's the flood footage that's most interesting and it suggests that if only McDaniel had obtained a lot more of it, he'd have had a more substantial movie. Shots of a prefab school building floating down I-24 are truly surreal and certainly grab our attention. As most of the audience won't know what a lot of the iconic Nashville buildings are, the commentary that accompanies this disaster footage is illuminating. Even when there aren't images, it remains fascinating. I'd never heard of Soundcheck Studios, but every story about it adds impact: Peter Frampton lost his entire stage set, Lorrie Morgan lost her entire wardrobe, historic guitars and equipment were destroyed.

And eventually we get to the part that the film has been building up to: the response the floods brought from the people of Nashville and, in particular, from the many musicians who pound out its heartbeat. Taylor Swift donated half a million bucks. Garth Brooks donated the proceeds from nine or ten sold out arena shows. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill hosted benefit gigs, which were a regular feature of the Nashville scene for a while. Others hosted telethons. Everyone pitched in, from the little guys to the big guys. Larry Gatlin highlights 'the community coming together and helping one another.' Well, this is what McDaniel felt warranted a feature film and I'm not going to disagree. I'd like to see a documentary on this and I say that having already watched this one. Sadly, this section is the weakest of them all, with none of those big stars on camera talking about what they did and why and those we do see simply agreeing with each other. It's anti-climactic.
Surely I'm not the only viewer who wondered for a full twenty minutes when the flood was going to show up, then once it did, wondered why it disappeared so quickly. If what hit Nashville was a thousand year flood, what we get here is a thousand seconds of talking about it, surrounded by a lot of filler material that has nothing to do with floods at all. Had the film focused itself around the city of Nashville, it would have been more successful because it wouldn't have disappointed. It would still have been weak, as we may have focused on meaningless little details, like why one of the Lunabelles and two of the Oak Ridge Boys seem happy to stand in front of the camera with their bandmates but never open their mouths, why Julie Roberts looks like a deer trapped in the headlights or why there's so much push to highlight the diversity of music in Nashville when 99% of the musicians interviewed are country artists.

Given that it is focused on the flood, it's notably disappointing. I learned a lot about this disaster not by watching the movie but by reading up on it afterwards. Music City USA mentions that lives were lost but it doesn't point out that there were 31 of them across three states, 21 of them in Tennessee and 10 in Davidson County which includes Nashville. It doesn't mention that the rain was accompanied by instability that helped generate a number of tornadoes that followed in its wake, killing another five people in Mississippi and Arkansas. It pushes the meme that Nashville is up and running again, cleaned up in a month by the community that banded together after the event, but doesn't point out that 52 counties asked to be declared as major disaster areas by the federal government and at least 30 were so acknowledged, accounting for 31% of the state. Tens of millions of dollars were raised in relief by the community but $1.5b of damage was done.

If what I learned about the flood wasn't learned from this film, what did it teach me? Not a heck of a lot, to be honest. I learned a little about the diversity of styles in the home of country music, but I'd have liked to have seen a lot more of Hank Williams III or Familyman Barrett from the Wailers. I was suitably impressed by the flowing white beard of William Lee Golden from the Oak Ridge Boys and even more stunned by the outrageous sideburns of Fred Young of the Kentucky Headhunters. I discovered that Pam Tillis obviously has a painting of herself in the attic that's growing young in her place, as she doesn't look a day older than she did twenty years ago. I learned that I'd like to see a lot more of Larry Gatlin, who provided a healthy and enjoyable sense of humour to this film. It was drummed home that everyone in Nashville agrees with each other, down to an apparently honest mayor. Most of all though, I learned that you shouldn't bother watching it.

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