THE 78 PROJECT MOVIE @ RTRFM's "GIMME SOME TRUTH" MUSIC DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL, LUNA OUTDOOR CINEMA, MONDAY DECEMBER 7
I head down Vincent St with the sun setting, into Luna on the corner, and – duly armed with rum and raisin choc-top – head through the café to the outdoor cinema where I settle on an ergonomic beanbag. All this time, in my pocket, is a mobile phone casually equipped with field recording technology that could (if I felt so inclined) capture all the sounds around me.
The ability to record sounds from the world, and to replay them at our leisure, is long since taken for granted come 2015. Portable recording devices are not the bulky and arcane apparatus they once were: they’re intuitive, and ubiquitous. This being the case, you’d think the sense of wonder – the almost magical quality that accompanied the earliest portable recording systems would have worn off, its novelty dissolved and its intrigue superseded. The 78 Project, a one-take direct-to-disc recording road trip now documented as a feature film, offers a compelling challenge to that assumption – as well as exposing the world to a curious and charming succession of intimate, singular performances.
The 78 Project was the brainchild of director/producer Alex Steyermark and writer/producer Lavinia Jones Wright. Inspired by the famed roving music archivist Alan Lomax, and his “quest to capture music where it lived throughout the early 20th century,” Steyermark and Jones Wright resolved to bring a similar process to the current musical landscape. They set out with one microphone, one 1930’s-era “Presto” direct-to-acetate disk recorder, and a pile of blank laquer disks. What happened next constitutes the scenes in The 78 Project Movie. Each performer involved in the project is asked to choose one song and record it in one take in a location of their choosing. So, we find Dawn Landes crooning sweetly amid birdsong-smattered crops; eccentric film composer Jaron Lanier playing two wooden flutes at once in his psychedelic studio; Dylan Leblanc offering a heartfelt Where Did You Sleep Last Night in his loungeroom, and the unforgettable Coati Mundi performing a song with spoons, and voice and dance in his kitchen. We hear tunes delivered in basements, forests, bars and mountainside gardens. Most of these musical vignettes, which err towards blues, gospel, folk and country, are great to listen to. But even those that aren’t quite as pleasing to the ear often offer poignant insights into the lives of music lovers and the spaces they inhabit. In each instance, the performer’s efforts are played right back to them from the 78rpm disc: a crackling, ghostly mirror of the immediate past. Strung together, these scenes form a restless and many-splendoured document of America’s myriad musics and idiosyncratic characters.
I use the term “document,” which feels like a more fitting descriptor than documentary. The latter term suggests some sort of agenda and narrative, no matter how truthful or balanced. The 78 Project Movie, however, offers little in the way of narration, context or commentary. There are interviews and conversation, but they’re not edited together in such a way as to suggest any grand conclusion or statement. In this way, the film feels more like an extended sequence of extremely well-executed home movies, or candid snippets of lives that sit simultaneously inside, outside and alongside the film itself. Perhaps the closest thing to traditional, didactic documentary is the film’s engagement with sound archivists and historians: the likes of Todd Harvey (Alan Lomax Collection Curator, Library of Congress) and Jeff Place (archivist at the Smithsonian Institution). These interactions are less personal, less emotive – but by providing some historical background and insight into the world of music preservation, they offer a fitting counterpoint to the film’s bucolic meanderings.
Would The 78 Project Movie interest non-music lovers, or viewers less than intrigued by old recording processes? It’s hard to say, but I expect perhaps not – the film doesn’t pretend to represent any profound truths that extend wide beyond its subject matter. Amid the sea of hyperbolic documentaries out there, this feels both slightly underwhelming and – moreover – refreshing. Taken as an extended fragment of an ongoing open-ended process, it’s well worth watching. As a portion of the Gimme Some Truth music documentary festival going down currently at Luna via RTRFM, it’s a totally pleasant piece of the puzzle that comprises our deep and diverse relationship to the art of crafting sound.