Before the Music Dies

screened at Circus Theatricals, November 16

Last Thursday night, in a dozen locations across the country — in private homes, at universities, in actual movie theaters — the award-winning documentary Before the Music Dies continued its two-year trek from film-festival darling to grass-roots cultural buzz item. Here in L.A., roughly two dozen people — aged industry types, hipsters, actual musicians and a few who qualify for all of the above — crowded into the Circus Theatricals Studio Theatre near MacArthur Park to view the doc. Unfortunately, despite the friendly theater staff and a pay-what-you-can admission fee, the screening was troubled: A late start time, horrible sound, and a space temperature hovering around cold-as-fuck were among its challenges to the viewer.

The film itself is a mixed bag. It hums with earnestness and passion, clearly being the work of people (co-directors/co-writers Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen) who have a genuine love of music and respect for the artists who make it. They capture some great insider insights from Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, the Roots’ Questlove, members of Calexico, Dave Matthews, Erykah Badu and Branford Marsalis. The last two, in fact, steal the movie. Erykah’s breakdown of what it takes to make it in the music industry nowadays (“Just be butt naked, with glitter. And a beeper”) is hysterical — she’s a natural comedian. And Branford’s hella-deep bitterness about the state of the music industry, and the way he connects it to American culture at large — railing on the sense of entitlement held by his mediocre students — is stinging but hilarious. Another strong segment illustrates how tone-deaf (but photogenic) singers are auto tuned in the studio. But the film isn’t all doom and gloom, either: Speaker after speaker makes it clear that given the relative cheapness of recording equipment, and the many possibilities for self-distribution and ownership available through the Internet, artists today don’t have to just bend over and take it.

But the film also works very tired tropes, setting up wizened Negro talking heads, old jazz and blues dudes, to speak on issues of heart and authenticity while the film itself arcs toward glorification of the battered, misunderstood Great White Hope (the admittedly talented Doyle Bramhall II). The myriad ways hip-hop artists have long circumvented industry shadiness and indifference (from setting up truly indie labels to selling tapes out of car trunks) goes unacknowledged. And while the points made about the money-driven callousness of modern-day industry types are true and well taken, some historical perspective is also lacking. While many of the speakers (and therefore the film) exalt the old days, when the businessmen also knew and cared about actual music, things weren’t always quite so rosy for artists. Otherwise, the great Ruth Brown — who died last week after spending decades fighting her old labels for owed royalties, while also working on behalf of other R&B singers — wouldn’t have had to wage the battles she did. Yes, the old-school industry guys were passionate about music, and they even loved their artists. They still fucked them over.

—Ernest Hardy

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