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The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music

Harry Smith set out to preserve idiosyncratic performances of traditional songs so he could capture an alternative, rough-edged America; archivist-turned-helmer Rani Singh pays tribute to the man and his musical legacy in "The Old, Weird America."

Cast:
With: David Johansen, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Neuwirth, Greil Marcus, Philip Glass, Elvis Costello, Percy Heath, Steve Earle, Luis Kemnitzer.

Harry Smith set out to preserve idiosyncratic performances of traditional songs so he could capture an alternative, rough-edged America; archivist-turned-helmer Rani Singh pays tribute to the man and his musical legacy in “The Old, Weird America.” Fascinating, occasionally repetitious docu combines archival footage with interviews and recent concert material to plumb the extent to which Smith’s eccentric and scholarly taste has influenced the music scene from his “Anthology of Folk Music’s” 1952 release through the 1997 CD reissue, to today. Docu would be a good draw during PBS fund-raiser pushes.

Unlike the unfocused “American Magus,” Singh’s docu concentrates on the music, guided by performers and cultural historians who discuss both the irascible Smith’s choices and the enormous impact the ’52 collection had on everyone from Bob Dylan (unsurprisingly absent) to Sonic Youth. Most of the musicians interviewed are two or three generations removed from the initial burst of interest, and more discussion of the original recordings would be welcome, but concert footage with the likes of Beck, Nick Cave and Beth Orton, shot by the Pennebakers, Jonas Mekas and others, demonstrate both the music’s potency and thrilling adaptability.

The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music

Documentary

Production: A Harry Smith Archives production. Produced by Rani Singh. Co-producer, Adam Hyman. Directed, written by Rani Singh.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Rani Singh; editor, Timothy Tobin; sound, Anthony Marinelli, Clint Bennett; associate producer, Nick Amster. Concerts conceived and directed by Hal Willner. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Music Please!), Feb. 2, 2007. Running time: 90 MIN.

With: With: David Johansen, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Neuwirth, Greil Marcus, Philip Glass, Elvis Costello, Percy Heath, Steve Earle, Luis Kemnitzer.

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