August 17-23, 2006
Movies : Screen Picks
Lomax the Songhunter (Tue., Aug. 22, 11 p.m., WHYY-TV) The fact that his principle subject has suffered a stroke proves an obstacle for dutch documentarian Rogier Kappers, but not an insurmountable one. Filming in 2001, the year before the famed musicologist'sdeath, Kappers films Lomax nodding approvingly as his daughter reads one of hisarticles, and listening with a mixture of joy and pain to recordings he made inCalabria in 1953. Retracing Lomax's steps through Europe (and thus neglected Lomax's better-known work in the American South), Kappers finds that Lomax's painstakingly collected recordings call up similar emotions wherever he goes. Children fetch pictures of their parents, holding them up to the camera as their half-century-old voice pours from the tape recording. Schoolchildren mouth the words to songs recorded before their parents were born.
"Alan Lomax is my hero," are practically the first words out of Kappers' mouth, so it's not surprising that Lomax the Songhunter skirts entirely the controversy surrounding Lomax's work: his tendency to assume copyright of the traditional songs he discovered, and his failure to credit the work done by his African-American assistants. But no scandal taints the recordings themselves, which Kappers lets play out as his car moves down the road. Perhaps most striking are the walking songs of the Scottish Hebrides, used by woman stretching tweed to keep their movements in time. Each new place opens a reservoir of memories and practices, each voice a key to the past.
Kappers' doc is sufficiently enthralling that one wishes PBS had made room for its full 92 minutes, rather than trimming it to just under 55. (They could at least have made time to credit Vittorio de Seta's stirring mining documentary Sulfatera, used to illustrate the Calabrian scenes.) Incomplete as it is, Songhunter makes for a tidy introduction to Lomax and his work, and hopefully a precursor to some future DVD release.