Before the Music Dies

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    If you feel that the mainstream music scene is becoming blander and more and more homogeneous, and that good, unique music is getting harder to find, then perhaps you’ll dig Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen’s documentary Before the Music Dies, which is about this very dilemma. Shapter, Rasmussen and their crew traveled around America, interviewing critics, scholars, historians, fans but mostly musicians, to find out what exactly the current state of music is, and how did this come about?

Forrest Whitaker narrates, and his serious, ominous voice tells us how music is the backbone of America’s culture, it unites us and helps us through our lives, and now, more than ever, it’s in danger of slipping away. The film goes into great detail about several elements of the contemporary music scene that’s helping destroy good music, most notably conglomerates like Clear Channel radio, who bought out radio stations, decide the play lists (playing the same three or four songs over and over) and turn the stations into commercial stations interrupted occasionally by music. The filmmakers were even able to interview a few (former) employees of Clear Channel, and their testimonials are pretty telling of the company’s lack of interest in music.

An especially interesting section of the film gives us an example of how a current pop singing sensation is “created.” A 45 year old male songwriter (who co-wrote a few Jewel songs) is asked by the filmmakers to write a love song, to be sang by a young female pop star. The filmmakers then hire an attractive, young model to sing the song, which she does, and of course it isn’t very good. Her voice is then “fixed” to sound acceptable, and the song is then given a music video, more focused on the fake singer’s body than on the music. And thus a star is born.

Many musicians, such as Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, ?uestlove, Elvis Costello and, probably most memorably, Erykah Badu, are interviewed, and their comments cast the current music scene in a fairly realistic and pessimistic light. It is mentioned more than once that in the current musical climate, such visionary musicians as James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Bruce Springsteen wouldn’t have lasted a day.

The filmmakers believe, however, that good, even great, music is still out there, but you just have to know where to look. The Internet, of course, is a key place, with many great websites dedicated simply to finding good music. A key character in the film is Doyle Bramhall II, a gifted blues/rock and roll singer and guitarist who is, as we discover, the real deal. Bramhall discusses candidly about his frustration with the music business, and his own trials and tribulations trying to find success in the business. Eric Clapton refers to Bramhall as a genius, and there’s even some great footage of them performing together.

Before the Music Dies is a compelling and well made documentary, and if you have even a casual interest in music, you should check it out.

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