From the outset, Ruth Oxenberg and Rob Schumer’s “Bluegrass Journey” makes it clear bluegrass is a musical form that lights its own fires. In docu’s virtuoso opening number, musicians trade lively riffs, their enthusiasm undampened by a virtual monsoon raging just beyond the makeshift stage where audience members soak up the music with the rain. Alternating between joyous performances and off-the-cuff commentaries by the musicians themselves — often supplemented with instrumental illustration, “Journey” has already proven itself a genuine crowd-pleaser at fests. Pic should resonate on music-themed cable, particularly given bluegrass’ Hollywood-spawned popularity following “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
A good chunk of the docu takes place at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, N.Y., a down-home outdoorsy weekend event where families camp out, impromptu ensembles jam in parking lots, and fans and performers mingle at mandolin workshops. Oxenberg and Schumer also travel to Louisville for the Intl. Bluegrass Music Assn.’s annual convention and awards ceremony, where the relatively sterile hotel setting is offset by hang-loose all-night music sessions in lobby corners and open-door hotel suites.
Bluegrass is an anomaly in that it claims a dizzying array of musical influences (Gospel, Celtic, African) yet credits only a single source, Bill Monroe, with inventing the sound. In its sampling of talking-head subjects, pic manages to touch all the bases, history-wise.
In performance, however, concrete representations of various key bluegrass influences are catch as catch can, Oxenberg and Schumer opting for availability over balance. This leads to some odd, unwitting emphases: the Celtic strain comes through loud and clear, while the sole illustrated link to black music goes from Chuck Berry backward to Monroe; mandolins are madly plucked left, right and center, but banjos, usually strongly associated with bluegrass, are strangely muted.
At the same time, docu samples a broad spectrum of bluegrass styles, from traditional family groups like Del McCoury band to the more experimental strains of Nickel Creek, with certain standout musicians, like Jerry Douglas on guitar and Chris Thile on mandolin, and Tim O’Brien on a variety of instruments, sitting in on several sessions.
Tech credits are fine for a DV-shot docu, the sound quality particularly sharp.