Camera and sound gear in hand, Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling have tagged along with their old friend Chris Strachwitz from Texas to Cajun country, from Appalachia to pre-Katrina New Orleans. Their documentary in progress, tentatively titled No Mouse Music! The Story of Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records, pays tribute to the underappreciated career of the El Cerrito Pied Piper who's pursued, recorded and released American roots music since 1960.
"One of the things that's most important about what Chris has accomplished in his life is he's given voice to people who would not have been heard at all except in their own communities," Simon explains on the phone from Utah, where she relocated eight years ago after a quarter century in the Bay Area. "I really think the music being released to the greater American public has changed American culture incredibly. We've become aware of all these pockets. America is not one big homogenization, which is what the folks who run the ball would have us say."
Simon is the co-director and cinematographer, and Gosling is co-director and editor. They met nearly 30 years ago in the studio of the Bay Area's leading practitioner of music (and, dare we say, ethnographic) documentaries. "Neither of us went to film school," Simon declares. "We went to the Les Blank school of film. Maureen is an anthropologist and I'm a folklorist in our academic training. Obviously we both learned from Les's approach to making films, and Les learned from us. We were thrown in and we made films. I'm a great believer–just go out and make films."
Simon and Gosling's connection with Strachwitz goes back to Blank's vibrant Chulas Fronteras (1976; later selected by the Library of Congress' National Film Registry) and J’ai Été Au Bal (1989), which spotlighted Arhoolie artists Flaco Jimenez and Clifton Chenier (among other greats). In the ensuing years, however, the economics of both the independent-label business and the nonfiction film world have taken a turn for the worse.
"We've been aching to have enough money to really sit down to do the job," Gosling confides. "One story that's emerging is the trajectory of the record business, its peak in the early days and now the end–at least in terms of what Chris calls 'song carriers.' The other thing is his life story, of an immigrant coming over from Germany after the war. His family lived in what was used to be Silesia, on the border between Poland and Austria. They had an estate. If the war hadn't happened, Chris would have been a count. But their place was right in the path of the Russians."
The third strand of the film is Strachwitz's treks around the country, visiting musicians he's known for decades while keeping an ear out for up-and-comers. Simon recalls a street parade they filmed through New Orleans to the beautiful old area of Treme, culminating in a recording session with the Treme Brass Band (who Strachwitz recorded 20 years ago.).
"It's fabulous footage, fabulous sound, fabulous music—and the computer crashed on location so we lost it all," Simon relates. "We hit the save button and everything disappeared. Chris had laid down thousands of dollars paying the musicians and setting it all up, and the number one thing on his mind was to comfort the sound man, saying, 'It's not your fault. We'll work this out.' I don't want to paint him as Mr. Super Nice, because he's not. But when the chips are down..."
In case it wasn't clear, No Mouse Music! will be, above all, a record of several relationships. "I think all of us look for people to work with who share our vision," Simon says. "It's not easy to find, let me tell you, living in Utah. Maureen is like my sister. We can squabble and fight and throw hissy fits and I know she's still going to be there. And I'm sure she knows the same about me."
Gosling likewise takes the long view. When she talks about Strachwitz's penchant for relating anecdotes, she could be talking about herself.
"He makes connections most people wouldn't make, like between bluegrass and Tex-Mex. The older you get, the more overview you have and the more memories bombard you on a daily basis. Those memories inform your present-day life, and Chris is constantly accessing those memories. It may affect how we edit the film, to go back and forth a bit." She adds, "He just turned 78, which was a very significant birthday for him because he is a passionate lover of 78s."
Notes from the Underground
Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich's The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers received favorable reviews both in Toronto (where it premiered at the festival) and New York (it began a two-week run at Film Forum last Friday) ... The prolific George Csicsery's latest documentary, Hard Problems: The Road to the World’s Toughest Math Contest, has its Northern California premiere at 5 p.m. Wed., Sept. 30, at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. Call (510) 642-0143 for details.
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