'The American Epic Sessions': London Review

Courtesy of Lo-Max Films

A musical feast for fans of vintage Americana, a history lesson for everybody else.

Jack White and friends assemble an all-star supergroup of performers for this musically rich documentary about the roots of American pop culture.

A heavyweight cast of musicians gather in a Los Angeles recording studio to cut songs using antique technology in this all-star documentary. Presided over by Jack White, T Bone Burnett and Duke Erikson of Garbage, The American Epic Sessions features performances by Elton John, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Edie Brickell, Taj Mahal, Bettye LaVette, Beck, Stephen Stills, Los Lobos and many more, including Hollywood superstar Steve Martin in banjo-plucking bluegrass mode. This stellar collective project forms the feature-length climax to an upcoming BBC and PBS TV series about the mobile recording machines that traveled the Deep South in the late 1920s, immortalizing the voices of rural poor, black and marginalized citizens for the first time.

Conceived by two British film-makers, Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty, the TV series is founded on the premise that early mobile recording machines helped channel folk, blues, gospel, jazz, country, Cajun, Hawaiian and other musical tributaries into the great roaring river of American rock and soul. Robert Redford, credited as executive producer, calls it "an account of the cultural revolution that ultimately united a nation." Even if that sounds simplistic and idealistic, the finished film is still a feast of musical and educational riches. Following its world premiere at London Film Festival this week, The American Epic Sessions will air on BBC and PBS early next year, with a special launch event planned for SXSW and various tie-in soundtrack albums to follow.

For all its platinum-plated cast list, the movie’s real star is the Scully recording lathe, a technological marvel from the 1920s which the filmmaking team spent several years lovingly restoring and rebuilding. This remarkable contraption is operated by gravity in the form of a 105-pound weight whose slow descent to the floor powers the gears and pulleys that etch sound from the studio directly onto vinyl discs. The whole process has a time limit of just over three minutes, which helps explain why that length became standard for pop singles.

Though a handful of artists choose to compose new songs in a retro style, most tackle cover versions of rowdy jug-band tunes from the 1920s or before. The filmmakers then dubbed their raw recording directly onto the soundtrack. Some of these numbers are fantastic. White himself, Nas, Mexican singer Ana Gabriel, young country star Ashley Monroe, R&B crooner Raphael Saadiq and the Nelson/Haggard duet all stood out. Others are more noteworthy as technological and cultural experiments rather than great songs.

As a viewing experience, The American Epic Sessions is obviously pitched more at music fans than cinema buffs. Around half the two-hours-plus running time is taken up with the studio performances, each filmed in a single take on a gently swaying camera, which inevitably becomes a little repetitive and claustrophobic. But within the narrow parameters dictated by his studio-bound format, MacMahon tries to spice up the action with brief moments of drama, humor and mild jeopardy. When the lathe’s heavy canvas belt snaps mid recording, White takes it to a nearby upholstery shop and repairs it himself, a throwback to his pre-music career in furniture repair. Phew! Rock 'n' roll.

The tortuous racial politics of U.S. pop history also impact fleetingly on this multi-racial project, as when rapper Nas compares the lyrics of vintage music-hall jazz to modern hip-hop, or when soul diva LaVette blushingly confesses that she used to dismiss old blues veterans as "Uncle Tom-ish" and even "coon-ish." A little more of this cultural context would have been welcome, but presumably these themes will feature more heavily in the TV series.

A touch dry and music-nerdy in places, this documentary will inevitably appeal to the kind of pedantic purist who likes to wax lyrical about the superior sonic properties of vintage vinyl and ancient analogue recording methods. But we must not blame the filmmakers for that. A mammoth project with worthy intentions and a big heart, The American Epic Sessions is a mostly joyous exercise in cultural archeology.

Production company: Lo-Max Films

Cast: Jack White, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Elton John, Bettye LaVette, Beck, Steve Martin, T Bone Burnett, Duke Erikson

Director: Bernard MacMahon

Screenwriters. Producers: Allison McGourty, Duke Erikson, Bernard MacMahon

Executive Producers: T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford, Jack White

Editor: Dan Gitlin

No rating, 140 minutes