Music is a powerful force. It transcends cultures, generations, socio-political mores and religion. It lifts us up, it makes us feel and it brings some to striking ridiculous poses on the dance floor.
The main theme of this year’s Maui Film Festival ration of musically inclined flicks seems to be about the transformative power of music. In the case of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (played Wed, Jun. 14, at the Celestial Cinema), it was about the journey of one musician’s 50-year career of poetry, songwriting and self-discovery.
In the film, documentarian Lian Lunson pieced together footage of a tribute to Cohen that took place last year at Sydney Opera House, along with one-on-one conversation with the wry, enigmatic folk-rock legend. Revelations about his bohemian beginnings with music, followed by his studies in silence at a Zen monastery, invoked profound insight into Cohen’s relationship with art and music, and consequently, with himself.
On a larger scale, music has the power to transform a group of people struggling to find peace and their place in a chaotic world. When a brutal civil war overtook the West African province of Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, hundreds of thousands of people fled to nearby Guinea. The Refugee All Stars is the tale of how two men—Reuben Koroma and Francis Langba—began a band of musicians, who then toured to various campsites, inciting hope and inspiration for the despairing and displaced.
“The Sierra Leonean people needed a revolution,” said Koroma. “But not a bloody revolution. Not a negative revolution. We needed a positive revolution.”
Love and religion are two other areas that could use a positive revolution as well. In One Love, a reggae love story that’s being touted as a cross between Romeo & Juliet and The Harder They Come, explores in dramatic form, how music can conquer divides between Christian and Rastafarian families when a rasta (played by Kymani Marley) falls in forbidden love with a gospel singer at a music contest.
That kind of hopeful transformation is also possible with music on a global level. Sound of the Soul: The Fez Festival of World Music documents the annual celebration of sacred music from around the world that takes place over eight days and nights in the Moroccan city of Fez. There, a Russian Orthodox choir, Moroccan desert nomads, a Portuguese Fado singer, Sufis chanting themselves into trances, and a Harlem gospel group join with religious leaders, scholars and representatives from the World Trade Organization to talk about a spiritual approach to globalization.
“At first,” said World Bank Director Katherine Marshall, “most governments thought spirituality had nothing to do with the challenges of development. But it is becoming clearer that it does.”
But what about the future of American music? In a time of pop-princess idolatry and a dangerously homogenous mainstream industry—the prettily-packaged Ashlee Simpsons and overblown fanaticism of American Idol being the most obvious indicators—where do we find the power of music? Bob Dylan said, “Music can save people, but it can’t in the commercial way it’s being used. It’s just too much. It’s pollution.”
In the documentary Before the Music Dies, Joel Rasmussen and Andrew Shanter travel across the U.S., talking with music-lovers, music critics and well-known musicians in an attempt to ascertain exactly what has happened in the past two decades to lead to such a dramatic and disheartening change in commercial vs. artistic music.
“You got to sell your Coca-Cola, and your Chips A-Hoy, your Nabisco and your super-deluxe tampons,” said Erykah Badu. “And then, you figure out how to fit the music in.”
“People get art and commerce mixed up,” said Questlove, of the Roots. “Once you can separate the two, and see that art is art, and commerce is commerce, and understand that this business is commerce, you know, then it makes that much more sense.”
But there is an underlying hope amongst fans and music industry professionals. Curiously, that hope lies in technology’s ability to reach an audience of true music enthusiasts, as well as keep a community of innovative artists and aficionados alive.
“There’s a lot of dumbing down going on,” said Dave Matthews. “But I don’t think we need to panic. I think we just need to teach our children well.”
Before the Music Dies will screen June 15, 7:30 p.m. at the McCoy Theater; One Love screens June 17, 7:30 p.m. at the Castle Theater; Sound of the Soul: The Fez Festival of World Music screens June 18, 5 p.m. at the McCoy Theater, followed by The Refugee All Stars. MTW