Sunday, January 17, 2010

Film Review #220: Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders
Stephen Talbot & David Davis for PBS
Cast: Marco Werman, Alexis Bloom, Arun Rath, Mirissa Neff

“Russians love tragic songs,” says former rock’n’roll dissident Alexander Yelin, creator of “A Man Like Putin,” the 2002 runaway hit music video that Vladimir Putin liked enough to use in his 2004 presidential run and still uses at rallies now. “At its core, this is about female tragedy. A woman lives in the provinces. She’s surrounded by dirt and drunkards. She wants the guy she sees on TV.”

Clad in his Pearl Jam tee-shirt and busy promoting an all-female heavy metal band now, Yelin tells reporter Alexis Bloom he has no regrets about writing the song – on a $300 bet – that has contributed to strong-man Putin’s cult of personality as Russia’s ideal man.

“I’m a professional,” he says. “I can write whatever you want. I could write an anti-Putin song, but right now there’s no market for it.”

Bloom grew up in apartheid South Africa and her resume includes an undercover investigative report about life under Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe, so she may know a thing or two about media and politics. Her 18-minute story on the career of one supposedly innocent feel-good pop song is unexpectedly bracing and leads the pilot for a new PBS show.

Unusually well-made and combining astute cultural and political analysis with some terrific world music, the arrival next week of PBS’ music magazine Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders is good news indeed. Even better, WCNY Channel 24 will carry the program, whose pilot airs both here in Central New York and nationally next Monday evening at 10 o’clock.

Sound Tracks is a West Coast entity, the offspring of veteran documentary filmmaker and PBS FRONTLINE/World’s Stephen Talbot, long based in San Francisco, and Oregon Public Broadcasting’s multiple Emmy-winner David Davis. Besides Bloom, Talbot has recruited FRONTLINE/World reporters Marco Werman (who serves as host) and Arun Rath, as well as deejay/San Francisco Bay Guardian art director/journalist Mirissa Neff, for a three-feature format with a performance closer called “Global Hit.” The editing, semi-animated graphic design that bridges segments, music themes and sound design are all crisp, graceful and bright. But beyond that, Sound Tracks asks in each of its segments questions about music's purpose - and art's - that go well beyond the insular assumption of mere entertainment. How delightful that Sounds Tracks also manages to provide such first-rate entertainment. Sound Tracks also enjoys the input and participation of the Center for Asian American Media, Latino Public Broadcasters, National Black Programming Consortium, Native American Public Telecommunications, and Pacific Islanders in Communications.

After Bloom, Marco Werman goes to Lagos, Nigeria, to explore music’s purpose with the youngest son of legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The current Broadway musical Fela! recounts how Kuti – inspired by the Black Panthers and Malcolm X – combined 1970s U.S. jazz and funk with West Africa juju to create what he called Afrobeat, railing against the military regime’s brutality and theft of oil profits in a mix of Pidgin English and Yoruba. Fela died in 1997 of AIDS; he had been arrested over 200 times and – after the release of his ’77 album Zombie – his home torched and his elderly mother thrown out an upper-story window. Seun Kuti was just 14 when his father died, but took over Fela’s band, the Egypt 80, and continues to carry on as cultural provocateur.

In the third segment, after landing by balloon in the Kazakh capital’s central marketplace and reminding us this culture dates back to Genghis Khan, reporter Arun Rath joins violinist Marat Bisengaliev – “Kazakhstan’s Itzhak Perlman” – and travels with him to Hollywood. Sasha Baron Cohen’s 2006 film Borat, actually filmed in Romania, offended Kazakhs in multiple ways. Bisengaliev focused on the fake national anthem – one line proudly hails the “cleanest prostitutes in the region” – written by the filmmaker’s brother, Erran. Bisengaliev invited the composer to write a symphony for Kazakhs as a way of making amends; Sound Tracks filmed its premiere performance and the Kazakh audience’s response.

The short closing segment centers on the mournful traditional Portuguese bar songs called fado – meaning fate or destiny – usually sung by women in black, accompanied by drums and classical guitar. The diva Mariza, European sensation and star of Carlos Saura’s film Fados – sings “Minh’ Alma/My Soul” at a massive outdoor Lisbon concert.

Publicity for Sound Tracks promises it’s good for a whole season and that subsequent shows will take us to bayou Louisiana, Havana, Paris, the desert music festivals of Mali, bluegrass country and Bollywood. But there’s no word on a regular time slot, so my guess is that audience feed-back will count for a lot in whether we see more installments.

This article appears in the 1/21/2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. “Sound Tracks” debuts Monday, 1/25 at 10:00 PM PBS stations nationally, including here in CNY on WCNY Channel 24. See a trailer from “Sound Tracks” and read this article online, along with others arts and entertainment coverage from Eagle Newspapers, at – click A&E.