Reel Indie Film Festival Review: Musicwood (2012)

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Director: Maxine Trump
Country: USA | Madagascar
Genre: Documentary | Music
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Reel Indie Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit http://reelindiefilmfest.com/ and follow the event on Twitter at @RIFF_Toronto. A Little Bit Country screens on Thursday October 17th at 9:00 PM at The Royal in Toronto, preceded by A Little Bit Country, reviewed here.

The interconnectivity suggested in Musicwood’s striking poster, as well as attesting the overlaps in agendas between the film’s various subjects, is an immediate indication that there are no good and bad guys here, no heroes to cheer nor villains to jeer. There is only the story, told with clarity and comprehension by debut documentarian Maxine Trump, of acoustic guitar manufacturers and their efforts to preserve the future of the natural resources so crucial to their operation. Smartly soundtracking the movie with music only made possible by the industry now under threat, Trump adds an aural aspect to her exploration of the Alaskan logging trade, its environmental ramifications, and the efforts underway to make more sustainable the practices now decimating its expansive forestlands.

Musicwood isn’t afraid to expose vested interest on the part of all it concerns. Therein lies the strength of its candid talking heads; Trump has a keen ability to skirt the PR babble of her subjects and get them to cut to the chase, giving this portrait the kind of across-the-board incisiveness it demands.

musicwood_2012_3It’s perhaps not until a late-stage sequence details the storming of Gibson’s locations by armed federal agents that we really appreciate the gravity of the situation here. Sitka spruce, the high-quality soundboard wood used by Gibson and its rivals and essential—we’re told—to the musical qualities of the instruments, is increasingly in-demand and enormously at-risk. Following the heads of Gibson, Taylor, and Martin as they suspend the spirit of competition and form the eponymous collaborative to investigate sustainable forestry, Musicwood isn’t afraid to expose vested interest on the part of all it concerns. Therein lies the strength of its candid talking heads; Trump has a keen ability to skirt the PR babble of her subjects and get them to cut to the chase, giving this portrait the kind of across-the-board incisiveness it demands.

She has the most trouble, perhaps, with Sealaska, the largest of the thirteen corporations charged with overseeing the land awarded indigenous Alaskans in 1971 and that whose territory includes the area’s largest population of Sitka spruce. There’s a telling scene where a member of the board unconvincingly tries to justify its unsustainable activities in accordance with the native culture, playing up his people’s connection to the land before seeming to remember he’s advocating his pillaging. He’s less likable only for the pretence: Bob Taylor is admirably honest, walking about the forest with his fellow presidents and admitting that there’s something not entirely right in cutting all this majesty down, but asking—not unfairly—if it isn’t in pursuit of something beautiful in its own right.

That’s Musicwood’s downfall, albeit a minimal one: paying too much attention to aspects inessential to the story at hand.

musicwood_2012_4That’s the central dilemma on which Musicwood is hinged, and with which it thrives whenever it opts to foreground its difficulty. Juxtaposing the often quite candidly self-serving words of her respective subjects, Trump is able to dramatise that difficulty with commendable effect: the white man vs Indian narrative it would be all too easy to hoist upon this story thankfully holds no temptation for her. What does, less fortunately, is a series of sorely lacking interviews with the soundtrack musicians, who prove far less valuable to the discussion at hand than they do to the atmosphere. As representatives of the end-product of this process they are integral, of course, but Trump lends far too much time to their essentially uninformed opinions.

That’s Musicwood’s downfall, albeit a minimal one: paying too much attention to aspects inessential to the story at hand. Trump has done a fine job of exploring the integral conflict that makes this so interesting a story, even if she has allowed herself to be distracted from the important issues at times. The desire to be comprehensive, a noble pursuit no doubt, has trumped the need to be concise. And as the film wanes on, turning more often to uninsightful name musicians and tangential protestors than to the subjects with which it started, it inevitable loses a little of its erstwhile allure. There’s a fascinating film in here bloated just a little beyond recognition; Musicwood, looking a little too closely at certain trees, slightly misses the wood.

[notification type=”star”]66/100 ~ OKAY. Musicwood’s desire to be comprehensive, a noble pursuit no doubt, has trumped the need to be concise.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.