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Before the Music Dies
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by Jay Seaver

"Preaching to the choir. Preach it!"
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: I strongly suspect that for many people in the audience, "Before the Music Dies" isn't saying much they don't already know. What passes for mainstream pop music is manufactured pap whose performers don't have the skills for performing live. Relaxation (nearly to the point of elimination) of ownership regulations has sucked much of the life out of commercial radio. Record companies being owned by large media corporations has made artist development and management all about short-term returns. It could very easily become the rantings of a cranky old man put on the big screen, but filmmakers Andrew Shapter and Joel Rassmussen are a little more optimistic than that.

Starting this project after each lost a music-loving sibling who had been very concerned about the direction of the music industry, they start from their home base in Austin, Texas and criss-cross the country talking to musicians, executives, fans, journalists, and others to survey the state of music in America. The underlying message is clear: The traditional infrastructure of the industry has become rigid and corporatized to the point where it no longer serves musicians or enthusiasts very well, but the internet has picked up much of the slack, giving proactive fans and artists the chance to connect like never before.

The first act of the movie addresses the industry's failings at the most instinctive, gut level: Today's music isn't as good as it was when we were young. I'm a bit wary of this, myself; there's something snobbish about opening with a hugely energetic performance of "Double-O Soul" from a Ray Charles TV special and then interviewing teenagers outside an Ashlee Simpson concert, practically snorting when they don't recognize Bob Dylan's name. Bonnie Raitt and Erykah Badu make pointed comments on the pop tarts who hit the top of the charts, and there's a very funny segment where the filmmakers demonstrate just how a pop star can be manufactured - a seventeen year-old model with a fantastic body but a horrible voice records a song, which is digitally massaged into tolerability, and shoots a video in what appears to be one afternoon. It's good, nasty comedy, and makes its point well enough to get past my attitude that if the end result is entertaining, the tools used to create it shouldn't matter. It just looks too easy.

Of course, that's only the surface problem; the real issue is the consolidation of the recording and broadcast industries. The number one enemy they see is ClearChannel, a Texas-based company that owns over two thousand radio stations across the country (ten years ago, it's noted, a single company could own a maximum of about ten). A heavily-disguised executive points out that ClearChannel was originally a group of car salesmen who acquired a radio station when its owner defaulted on a loan, and wound up successfully applying retail business methods to the company. The consolidated, corporate record companies who can't look beyond the next quarterly balance sheet to take the time necessary to develop an artist are also brought in as a target. The number one example they use is Doyle Bramhall II, a California artist who doesn't easily fit in a current genre. Eric Clapton tells us he's the best new rock & roller in years, and his former contact at the label agonizes over not being able to make him a star. Neither the radio stations nor studios are willing give him resources that could otherwise be used on a sure thing, even if the potential reward down the road is exceptional. We get a lot of concert footage of him, and he sure seems to be the real deal.

The film could easily turn defeatist here, but Shapter and Rasmussen clearly fall into the camp that feels the internet will be a net positive for musicians and fans. The last act of the movie is all about how people who love music can circumvent the old, broken system. Lots of websites, from Napster to MySpace (one of the film's distributors) are plugged, with screenshots so that we can remember how the addresses are spelled. Dave Matthews is held up as an example of an artist who made it via word-of-mouth, and we're given plenty of examples of how technology allows work to be done with fewer people, whether in production, promotion, or distribution.

This is stuff much of the audience already knows, so the filmmakers have cannily made sure that the film can be promoted via its "cast" - Badu, Clapton, Raitt, and Matthews are joined in interview duty by the likes of Elvis Costello and Brandford Marsalis, and there's a fair amount of very nice performance footage; I imagine that will serve as a pretty good draw for the folks who aren't already on the movie's wavelength. The artists who perform are a good, diverse mix, from famous names like Marsalis and Matthews to up-and-comers like Doyle and Calexico. Shapter and Rasmussen maintain a fan's enthusiasm throughout, and are convincing in part because they opt not to be strident - as much as the artists are frustrated by corporations acting like corporations, the film never starts scolding and suggesting they should act otherwise; there's better ways to skin a cat. Shapter is a former fashion photographer - photographing pretty pop stars was part of his inspiration for the picture - and he's got a good idea of how to use the camera; Rasmussen handles the editing, and uses a good balance of stock footage, performance, interview, man-on the street, et al.

Most music fans probably know all this, but it's nice to be vindicated. It's a great way to introduce others to what's going on in the music business nowadays, and how music fans can make things as good as they used to be.

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originally posted: 04/22/06 23:44:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston For more in the 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.

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  DVD: 12-Dec-2006



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