Monthly Archives: November 2009

Woody Guthrie Documentaries on DVD

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There are two documentary films available about American Folk legend Woody Guthrie.  The first released in 2005 is called Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists.  The other is a PBS documentary from the American Masters series that was released in 2007 called American Masters: Woody Guthrie.

Both films are pretty similar, obviously sharing the same subject matter and the chronological method by which they tell Woody’s story.  Each film features a introduction then eventually switches to a chronological narration of his story (w/ periodic meanderings off topic).  The 2005 doc separates Woody’s story into chapters which unfortunately doesn’t do much for the film.  For the most part they also feature the same interview subjects (Pete Seeger, various experts/biographers, and living relatives including his daughter Nora Guthrie), although the longer of the two films has quite a few more interviews.  The 2005 version is the longer of the two coming out at 2 hours and 40 minutes and the PBS doc is 90 minutes long.  The two films feature high profile narrators, the 2005 release features British Singer/Songwriter Billy Bragg, and the PBS film boasts the narration by actor Peter Coyote.  In the 2005 version Billy Bragg appears in the film in a handful of segments which honestly come off a little stiff.   The two films expertly make use of Guthrie’s large catalog of recorded material, including audio clips from interviews and radio shows.

One of the joys of watching these documentaries is you are visually given the context in which the music was created and you get a history lesson for those songs that were about actual events.  Much of the music Woody wrote was about the American experience or specific events.  It is great to have these films to walk us through those pieces of history we may not remember or be aware of.  Great examples of this are his songs “The Sinking of the Reuben James” and “Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh)” which are about about a US Navy warship that sank in WWII and the American Dust Bowl of the early to mid 1930s, both of which are discussed in the these films.

It was a great surprise to me to find out how much I didn’t know about Guthrie and these films did a great job at filling in those gaps.  This surprise was magnified by the fact that I have read Woody Guthrie’s Autobiography Bound For Glory.  Granted the book was written and published (1943) before a big chunk of Guthrie’s formative years, it did not do the job.  Let me be clear, I never found it to be boring… I just didn’t find it to be particularly informative and since watching these films I find out large chunks of it were embellished or untrue.  Woody had a way of portraying himself as a uneducated country boy, it was a part of his charm and I think that the autobiography follows that line.

Out of the two films I felt that the American Masters version was by far the most enjoyable.  This Machine Kills Fascists has its merits and among them is it’s extremely thorough and detailed.  Unfortunately with that it is just way too long and honestly when looking back came off a little flabby and a bit repetitive.  I would say that the American Masters film is just the right amount of detail and the information portrayed is also better organized.

Stay tuned to my site as I will be posting more about my studies of Guthrie including a post that will get into his life and music in a little more detail.  If you are interested in the watching the films you can find them both as part of the Netflix library or click the pics above as they are linked to the Amazon product pages.  Other suggested material would be the feature film based on Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory.  Although I have not read them, you also have the pick of two print biographies that have been released in the last 10 years, Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Studs Terkel and Ed Cray as well as This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge.


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Lester Bangs – Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

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It was always inevitable that I eventually would pick up some Lester Bangs, seeing as he could be considered the king of all music snobs and is one of the most influential figures in music criticism.  Best known for his album reviews in Rolling Stone and the more underground Creem, Bangs starting getting published in 1969 and was still working all the way up to his death in 1982.  Lester started writing on Rock N Roll just as the hippie dream of the sixties was dying.  For Lester the 70’s were a tough time for music but a great time to establish himself as an eccentric music critic.  By the time he had made a name for himself by blasting the music industries status quo, Punk (a term that he has said to have coined) started bubbling out from under America’s rough urban areas.  Punk rock was visceral and exciting and he wasted no lime wading into the thick of it.  By the time of his tragic death in 1982 Lester was still truckin’, albeit a little less enthusiastically as he had to adjust to another shift in popular music  – this time the “new wave”.

Lester’s comes from an unconventional place as he wrote record reviews and cultural critiques that were influenced by drugs, drink and the beat authors whom he read heavily in his early years.  Surprising at first, as it usually doesn’t have much of a form.  Instead of giving you straight criticism of albums or bands, Lester tells you a story, or come from the opposite angle completely by employing fake praise and searing sarcasm.  Additionally Lester had a rather inconsistent view point at times and if you look at his writing as a whole you will find many contradictions.  He would constantly flip flop on certain bands, or write a cultural piece that would come in clear conflict to other things he had said or written.  Definitely a complicated and talented figure.  I found his writing for the most part to be funny, confrontational, insightful and extremely bizarre.  While most of it is enjoyable, a lot of it comes off as over complicated, muddled, confusing and completely absurd.

This book in particular is far from a complete work.  It is just a collection that was edited and compiled by Lester’s friend and colleague Greil Marcus.  Marcus took great pains to sift through Lester’s  unfinished scraps and unpublished works to include along with his selections from published writing.  The works are not presented chronologically as one might expect they are put in sequence by shared themes.  The bands you will find material here are Lester’s staple groups such as Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, Richard Hell, Rod Stewart, and some more obscure garage rock bands such as Question Mark and The Mysterians, and the Troggs (just to name a few).  You will also find some great criticism of David Bowie, James Taylor, Grand Funk Railroad, The Guess Who, and again Lou Reed.  The segments on Lou Reed are some of the most enjoyable in the book, as you read all about Lester’s love/hate relationship with this artist.  Particularly great is Lester’s depictions of several of interviews between the two in which they go back and forth being incredibly insulting to each other.

For those who are looking to go beyond the definitive collection of Lester’s writing, you can find a more expanded compendium of his writing in Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste:  A Lester Bangs Reader.  In addition there is also a biography available entitled Let It Blurt:  The Life and Times of Lester Bangs – America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis.

I also included a playlist via Grooveshark.com featuring a bunch of songs that were discussed in the book or that I know to be some of Lester’s favorites.  Towards the end of the list as an added bonus is 5 tracks from Lester Bangs himself as he produced and recorded some music towards the end of this life.

http://listen.grooveshark.com/#/playlist/Lester_Bangs_Favs_Songs/18406999

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