I can’t think of a better way to bridge South by Southwest Film to SXSW Music than a morning screening of “The American Epic Sessions.”
The film is a love a letter to recorded sound, without which we’d have never left the silent film era, and an intimate visual portrait of the recording process.
The first electrical sound recording machines where the size of a wardrobe closet. They had a giant amplifier, intricate clockwork gears and a pulley-driven weight that dropped a needle that would carve the wax disc. It took the weight three minutes to complete its fall and end the recording, hence the standard recording time of many pop songs.
The machines were taken around to rural parts of the country where talent shows would be held and people could record their music and hear it played back. It represented the democratization of recorded music, according to the film’s director Bernard MacMahon, who presented the movie at the Paramount Theatre Wednesday morning.
None of the recording machines are still in existence, but engineer Nicholas Bergh spent about a decade recreating one. The documentary holds its own talent show, bringing in artists from across the country for 20 recording sessions. The artists are filmed in a copper light that, when blended with the shadows, makes them appear like characters on a U.S. penny, fitting for the historical nature of the movie that recaptures the birth of modern recorded communication in America.
The artists all approach the sessions, which demand precision in one take and represent the sound emoted in its purest form, with reverence and fascination. Guiding the endeavor along with T. Bone Burnett is, naturally, Jack White, modern music’s torch bearer of the American music tradition. White and members of one of his band kick off the film with a raucous aural throwback to Tennessee hollers with an uncredited song likely titled “Barefoot Blues.”
The movie, executive produced by White and another American classic, Robert Redford, navigates the music from the 20s and 30s, with an array of artists ranging in popularity from radio darlings like the Avett Brothers to lesser artists like roots musician Pokey LaFarge.
Nas delivers one of the film’s most stirring moments, reprising the Memphis Jug Band’s 1928 song “On the Road Again,” using White’s band for backing. Not only is striking to hear the rap legend backed by an acoustic band that harkens to sounds of a century ago, it is stirring to hear the raw lyrics of violence and hustling from almost 100 years ago sound so fitting coming from the lyric master Nas.
Those ideas “didn’t start with hip-hop, they started with America,” Nas said.
The film uses interstitials between performances – including Los Lobos playing a 19th century Mexican folk song, Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) deliver a devastating take on the bluesy warble “One Hour Mama” and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard honoring Bob Wills – to discuss the history of the machine and show the musicians marveling over its intricacies and its ability to transport both musician and audience decades into the past.
The film is a celebration of the honesty, vulnerability and immediacy of recording and the joy of making music. It also can’t help display White’s virtuosic musical talent, as he helps Elton John arrange a new song and guides Beck and a choir through a painstaking recording process and the nuances of the early recording process. White even comes to the rescue to help fix the machine at one point, proving that he really can do it all. Even sew.