Sydney Film Festival: The American Epic

Kate Young
15th Jun 2016

America in the 1920’s was a nation going through some of the most dramatic social and political changes in its history. For the first time, more people were now living in cities than on farms, the economy had more than doubled, and technology was further pushing American into the modern age. With the introduction of the radio, record companies started seeing diminishing record sales and even media print itself. So, they decided to go in search of the other America, trading in the industrial north for the traditional south. Advertisements were placed in newspapers calling on all musicians near and far to come and audition and get the opportunity to record their songs for the very first time and immortalise their performances.

Conceived by two British filmmakers Bernard McMahon and Allison McGourty, The American Epic is a four-part documentary series the gets to the roots of American music history. MacMahon’s main driving force behind the film was passion and curiosity. Being such a avid music listener, MacMahon wanted to track down the artists whom had inspired many of his favourites and so began the assembly of the jigsaw puzzle. It was an extensive search through archives, both newspaper and film footage, and tracking down artists and surviving family members and listening to the stories that had been passed down through generations. The need for answers led them to uncover some of the most amazing stories and get to the very beating heart of American music.

The documentary series is broken up into three episodes detailing how the artists showcased have helped pave the way and created a huge melting pot of sounds. From The Carter Family of Poor Valley in Virginia whose folk music had a profound impact on bluegrass and country, to the Memphis Jug Band Family whose unique use of found instruments (jugs, kazoos,washboards and washtub bass) and songs of drugs, crime and prostitution made way to become what we know as "rhythm and blues," which would later go on to inspire the rap movement. South Carolina was making even the atheists tap their feet to the joyful gospel tunes of Elder Berch and Dizzy Gillespie.

The last episode in the series is called The American Epic Sessions. With the help of a few friends like Jack White, Elton John and Willie Nelson (just to name a few) the artists got together and used one of the original Scully Recording Lathes that was used in the 1920’s to etch sound from the studio directly onto vinyl discs. What was to come out of these recordings is just pure magic.

The American Epic is truly one of a kind. This is a film for every kind of music fan no matter what your genre. It goes to show that music is for everyone, no matter what your education, your social status, your gender, your race or even religious beliefs. The fact is that we can all make music. Music calms the soul and can make us soar to great heights even when the weight of world has us down. Music helps us to express ourselves and for many of these people it gave them a voice when the rest of America didn’t want to listen.

The American Epic screened as part of the 2016 Sydney Film Festival. There is still a chance to catch The American Epic sessions on Thursday June 16.