“Musicwood” takes as its title and subject an extraordinary coalition: guitar makers, Native American corporation heads and Greenpeace environmentalists who, for a time at least, sought to find a collective solution to their contradictory interests. At stake: the future of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the largest in the U.S. and the last repository of the rare, centuries-old Sitka oaks used for the soundboards of fine acoustic guitars. Part music docu, part travelogue and part ecological advocacy film, Maxine Trump’s feature loses focus as it progresses, though its insights into guitar making, forestry harvesting and environmental shortages resonate strongly.
On the face of it, the coalition’s three arms would seem to have everything in common: Greenpeace wants to protect the rainforest; the guitar makers want to guarantee an uninterrupted supply of Sitka oak (their usage accounting for only a fraction of a percent of the wood harvested); and the Native Americans want to ensure continued survival on their ancestral land for thousands of years to come. Yet if Sealaska, the Native American corporation in charge, continues with its present-day clear-cut logging, the forests that all three entities depend on are unlikely to last decades, much less millennia.
Unsurprisingly, it’s Greenpeace that first becomes aware of the imminent ecological disaster. Unable to convince Sealaska of the need for sustainable logging, a Greenpeace representative invites CEOs from guitar brands Martin, Gibson and Taylor (along with the audience) to tour the Tongass, thinking the language of music might bridge the cultural gap. Blown away by the beauty of the huge oaks, the manufacturers are shocked by the utter devastation caused by clear-cut logging, never before having realized how endangered the materials for their guitars’ component parts had steadily become.
An even greater shock, given the tear-down-the-cheek stereotype of Native Americans as careful custodians of the land, comes with the realization that the tribes’ business operations are despoilers themselves. Trump doesn’t really explore the question of why the huge profits from clear-cutting are never recycled back into the community as alternative long-term sources of income; the issue is raised by dissident members of the tribe, clearly upset over the destruction of their heritage and suspicious of Sealaska’s indigenous board of directors.
At first, all seems copacetic in the coalition as its members consider various options. But as conflicts arise, common ground begins to erode and the film digresses in all directions. Trump’s structure, starting with reverential interviews with musicians (including Kaki King, Yo La Tengo and Steve Erle) and their performances, followed by awed coverage of the craftsmanship that goes into producing a fine guitar, places viewers squarely in the music makers’ camp. But the film can’t cope with subsequent developments that increasingly cloud the issues. When one of the guitar manufacturers pleads guilty to importing illegal endangered wood, the film’s moral compass is sent spinning into disarray.