'78rpm': Film Review

78rpm Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Joel Schlemowitz
A charming and playful party for old-time aficionados.

In his first feature doc, experimental filmmaker Joel Schlemowitz looks at the granddaddy of vinyl records.

Forget about the mainstream "vinyl comeback," which has allowed record labels to hawk overpriced reissues of LPs that savvy collectors could easily find in thrift stores (anybody need a $30 reissue of the first Boston album?): Joel Schlemowitz goes to the heart of retro music collecting in 78rpm, a whimsical ode to one of the most durable formats in which music has ever been sold. Mixing conventional talking-head interviews with black-and-white 16mm interludes, the doc serves in part as a way for viewers in cities without a thriving old-timey scene to get in on the action vicariously. Niche theatrical bookings should find an audience, with a reasonable video afterlife targeting die-hards.

And die-hards are pretty much all one gets when discussing those who collect the big, heavy pieces of shellac or vinyl sold in the early years of the 20th century. Though very long-lasting if stored and handled properly, the discs are easy to break and easy to wear out — listen as one man who repairs antique record players describes the difficulty of getting newbies to replace their steel needles before they grow dull and destroy the groove. Many of Schlemowitz's interviewees go whole hog, DJing dance parties in vintage garb and lugging several huge gramophones out to each location.

Those folks make colorful subjects for some of the movie's charming antique-style episodes, where we see revelers at various kinds of house party and in staged tableaux. Other, less costume-prone speakers drop in elsewhere to talk of the history of recorded music (Thomas Edison isn't the only brilliant tinkerer in this story) and of the 78's proliferation. Enjoyable diversions take us to a museum devoted to Enrico Caruso, one of the format's first superstars, and to an archive devoted to non-Western records run by Excavated Shellac's Jonathan Ward.

Viewers may wonder where certain authorities and well-known 78-lovers are — R. Crumb being probably the most famous — but the movie offers a smart variety of voices, from scholars to steampunks to head-over-heels fans. As with all such outings, romanticism plays a big role — we're barely 20 minutes in when one speaker declares "there's something about the sound of a 78 that's ... tangibly different" from other records, triggering "a portal to another time." But hell, anybody willing to lug around and care for a ton of black plastic whose sonic contents could just as well fit on a thumb-sized USB stick has earned the right to wax poetic.

Venue: Anthology Film Archives
Director-screenwriter: Joel Schlemowitz

Not rated, 98 minutes