Chicago premiere of 'The Great Flood' overwhelmed by its subject
by Howard Reich
In the spring of 1927, the waters of Mississippi River overflowed in spots from New Orleans right up to Cairo, Ill. Hundreds of people died, almost a million were uprooted and the course of American social history changed, with black sharecroppers pouring into cities in the north, particularly Chicago. The Great Migration, already well underway, gathered additional momentum, and a Southern musical culture that had taken root here blossomed more fully.
The story has been told in literature and in song, but on Friday night it took on another form: A silent documentary film with live jazz accompaniment. Bill Morrison's 90-minute doc "The Great Flood" launched the new season of Symphony Center Presents Jazz, as well as Symphony Center's "Rivers" series, which during the next several months will explore the cultural impact of the waters that surround us.
Despite its epic subject matter (or because of it), Morrison's Chicago premiere of "The Great Flood" proved underwhelming, though alluring in several passages. The live-performance soundtrack from guitarist Bill Frisell's quartet mostly outshone the film it was meant to accompany, making this evening a more rewarding experience for the ear than for the eye.
For starters, the screen onto which the film was projected was too small for both the stage of Orchestra Hall and for the images themselves. The vintage Fox Movietone newsreel footage that filmmaker Morrison took pains to unearth and edit contains compelling detail: scenes of homes nearly submerged, citizens stranded on rooftops, river towns destroyed by water. But the limited screen rendered the images comparatively slight and insignificant, while some visual information was lost .
Moreover, during the first few of the film's 13 vignettes, Frisell's gorgeous score felt emotionally out of sync with the scenes unfolding on the screen. Monumental shots of the waters of the Mississippi raging across the landscape were accompanied by Frisell's serene, austerely beautiful music. Sight and sound conflicted here, slowing the progress of the tale.
It wasn't until the sixth chapter, "Mississippi River, April 1927," that image and music fully cohered and the film began to engage emotionally. Here Frisell's melancholy score gave voice to the unspeaking characters of "The Great Flood," the gripping visual-musical narrative making words unnecessary. From this point forth, "The Great Flood" showed real purpose and forward motion, conjuring the sweep of nature, the helplessness of humans in the face of it and, eventually, a vast social movement born of a cataclysmic event.
To their credit, Morrison and Frisell were able to weave bits of dark humor into the fabric of the story, particularly in the section titled "Politicians." Yes, that title itself stirred a bit of laughter in the house during this election season. But even more effective was the spectacle of pompous, overdressed pols in fedoras and suits accompanied by Frisell's now-jocular score, its melody slithering around the beat, its motifs comical and mocking.
Some viewers might have objected to the decayed nature of some of this film footage, with the margins often frayed and black blotches and other distractions appearing periodically on the screen. But considering the historic nature of the subject itself, the crumbling quality of the visuals only underscored the passage of time and the preciousness of the footage that has survived.
If the film suffered from flaws in structure and emotional tone, Frisell's score occasionally made up for it. Even without the black-and-white scenes flickering on the screen, listeners would have been drawn in by ethereal textures from Frisell's guitar, softly weeping lines from Ron Miles' trumpet and atmospheric fills from bassist Tony Scherr and drummer-percussionist Kenny Wollesen.
At the same time, however, Frisell probably erred in relying so heavily on snippets of Jerome Kern's "Ol' Man River." Though it's a timeless song from a landmark work of American musical theater, "Show Boat," in the context of "The Great Flood" it veered perilously close to sugary cliche.
In the end, "The Great Flood" didn't nearly match the majesty of its story, though it certainly captured glints of it.
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"The best documentary of the evening was Bill Morrison’s “The Great Flood,” a riveting hour and 20 minutes marrying Morrison’s remarkable excavation of vintage newsreels and outtakes to an outstanding, Americana-flecked score by Bill Frisell, a great jazz guitarist heading a remarkable band (got to drop the name of trumpeter Ron Miles). Frisell, by the way, will lead a band called Beautiful Dreamers at the Allen Theatre at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 27. The show, part of the Tri-C JazzFest, also will feature violist Eyvind Kang and Kenny Wollesen, the drummer in the Morrison-Frisell movie.
The film starts with a computerized pan over the Mississippi River as it is about to burst its banks. It shifts into period material as close to 150 levees break, flooding 27,000 square miles, killing 246 and devastating seven states.
The Great Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in U.S. history. Morrison and Frisell have made poetry out of its devastation. They’ve also crafted eloquent commentary on race, politics and the shift from the agrarian to the urban.
The images, presented thematically and chronologically, span families clinging to their roofs, river water rushing with such turbulence the water looks like muscles flexing, rebuilding with horse and plow, and the migration north. Part of the subtext is the evolution of rural blues into rock and roll. Midway through, the director, who lives in New York and experienced his own flood in Hurricane Sandy, inserts a rapid-fire “chapter” paging through the Sears & Roebuck catalogue of 1927 to illustrate what the flood washed away and to show how little things mattered during the tragedy.
There are obvious reasons the film resonates: Morrison’s own experience, Hurricane Katrina, the historicity of the imagery, all black-and-white, all celluloid, much blotched by age. But one of the main ones is that “The Great Flood,” unlike most other documentaries, is silent. There is no narrator, no script. The pictures and the music speak for themselves, for each other – and, before we know it, for and to all of us."