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The Great Flood

The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in American history. In the spring of 1927, the river broke out of its earthen embankments in 145 places and inundated 27,000 square miles. Part of its legacy was the forced exodus of displaced sharecroppers, who left plantation life and migrated to Northern cities, adapting to an industrial society with its own set of challenges. Musically, the Great Migration fueled the evolution of acoustic blues to electric blues bands that thrived in cities like Memphis, Detroit and Chicago, becoming the wellspring for R&B and rock as well as developing jazz styles. THE GREAT FLOOD is a collaboration between filmmaker and multimedia artist Bill Morrison and guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, inspired by the 1927 catastrophe.


The Great Flood - Trailer 2014 

From Songtone on Vimeo


American Ingenuity Awards 2014

Coming to Terms With One of America’s Greatest Natural Disasters

Documentary filmmaker Bill Morrison plunges us into the Great Flood of 1927



By Jeff MacGregor
Smithsonian Magazine
November 2014



Press Quotes:

"Critic's Pick! Visual poetry, sublime" - The New York Times

"Archival wizard Bill Morrison's film finds lyricism in disaster" - The Wall Street Journal

"This is cinema as art, and a classic" - LA Weekly

"Fascinating! Required viewing in U.S. history classes throughout the country" - The Daily Beast

"Hypnotic, playful, wildly evocative...Masterfully assembled; a terrific achievement" - LA Times

"Four stars! [Conveys] all the terror and pity that modern disaster footage imparts [and causes] its subject to breathe anew. - Time Out New York

"A history lesson so vividly immediate as to resemble a ghostly conjuration." - The L Magazine

"A remarkable work!" - The Seattle Times

"[An] extraordinary confluence of talents and subject-matter." - The Telegraph



NY Times Review - January 7th, 2014

Recalling a Disaster Without Uttering a Word

by Neil Genzlinger

This probably isn’t the kind of compliment the filmmakers want to hear in the week of its theatrical release, but “The Great Flood,” a beautiful exploration of the Mississippi River flood of 1927, almost demands to be enjoyed using high-quality headphones. Its soundtrack is an artwork in its own right, one worth savoring as you would a fine recording.

This wordless movie, a documentary that is more like visual poetry, is the work of Bill Morrison, created from old newsreels and other film records, like his earlier work “The Miners’ Hymns.” Here his collaborator is the guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, whose score (performed by Mr. Frisell, Ron Miles, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen) meshes with the images so evocatively that it seems as if they were born together.

The flood was devastating, especially to what remained of the Mississippi Delta’s sharecropper economy, so much so that it helped change the country’s demographics, fueling the northward migration of blacks that had already been underway. With just the occasional bit of text on the screen, Mr. Morrison conveys the destruction and the aftermath, although he is sparse enough with the details that viewers might want to prepare by reading at least a summary of the disaster.

The film and Mr. Frisell’s music are elegiac over all, but there are sparks of humor in the mournful journey: a rapid trip through a Sears catalog of the period; a look at government officials visiting flood zones for photo ops, much as they might today.

Mr. Morrison’s résumé includes an entire movie about decaying film stock (“Decasia”), and his fascination with the phenomenon is evident in “The Great Flood.” A number of the film fragments he employs are beginning to deteriorate, and he happily leaves the eroded images as they are. Mr. Frisell’s music seems actually to be calling forth the flaws, like a modern-day digital effect. It’s a sublime, somewhat eerie touch in a striking experiment in music and moviemaking.

Click HERE for the original article



Los Angeles Times Review - January 30th, 2014

An Evocative Look at 'The Great Flood' of 1927

by Gary Goldstein

"The Great Flood," an all-archival clip documentary revisiting the events and effects of the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1927, is by turns hypnotic, playful, wildly evocative and even a bit trippy. But most of all it's a unique, highly immersing audio-visual experience that would be as at home in a museum as it is in a movie theater — and that's a first-order compliment.

Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison ("Decasia," "The Miners' Hymns") has masterfully assembled a collage of silent, monochrome archival footage of this largely forgotten catastrophe — call it the Hurricane Katrina of its day — in which the Mississippi's levees broke in 145 places, engulfing 27,000 square miles of land from southern Illinois to New Orleans. It resulted in the Flood Control Act of 1928 and the widespread migration of African Americans, many of whom were sharecroppers, to Chicago and other Northern cities.

Morrison organizes his footage, much of which is decayed in ways that lend the picture a vibrant, strangely artistic glow, into mostly successive chapters: "Swollen Tributaries," "Levees," "Evacuation," "Aftermath" and so on. These clips provide a rare and riveting snapshot of a place and time — how people lived, worked, traveled, dressed (boy, were hats popular!) and, in this case, survived. Perhaps most notable is the era's clear racial divide.

Memorably enhancing the movie's time capsule vibe is a bravura sequence that whips and zips its way through an entire 1927 Sears Roebuck catalog.  Guitarist-composer Bill Frisell's wall-to-wall, bluesy-jazzy soundtrack beautifully reflects and unifies the visuals while also helping to personalize this distinct endeavor. It's a terrific achievement.

Click HERE for the original article



LA Weekly Review - 2014

The Great Flood

by Chuck Wilson

In the spring of 1926, it began to rain in the Deep South, and it kept on raining, for months, in a relentless torrent that must have felt biblical. For The Great Flood, his gorgeous new found-footage documentary, filmmaker Bill Morrison has plumbed America’s newsreel archives to stitch together a visual collage of a flood that ultimately submerged 27,000 miles of land, displacing 1 million people. Here are sights few alive have seen: black sharecroppers toiling in the cotton fields of the early 1920s (though in their look these scenes could well be the slave years); African-American men being forced at gunpoint to shore up the levees; tents lining the coast for miles, the biggest campout in U.S. history. And there are the floodwaters themselves, turbulent, terrifying, insanely beautiful. All of this ancient footage is silent, of course, yet The Great Flood is an aural feast. Jazz guitarist/composer Bill Frisell has created a score steeped in the blues tradition of the region, which means that its inspiration comes from the faces onscreen — mournful yes, but also, amazingly, full of humor and joy. Destined for a long life in museums and history classes alike, this is cinema as art, and a classic. 

Click HERE for the original article Review - January 27th, 2014

Koehler on Cinema: The Greatness, and Terror, of a Flood

by Robert Koehler

No words, no images, no sounds can fully convey the total horror of the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. The book that comes closest to putting you in the middle of the most widespread water disaster in American history—it stretched across the entire Mississippi River valley and west, across the river’s tributaries, affecting nearly half the states of the Union and dwarfing the impact of a Katrina—is John Barry’s “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How it Changed America” from 1997. Now, with “The Great Flood,” the master of found-footage cinema, Bill Morrison, offers the closest we’re likely to experience of the epic event on the big screen.

Morrison’s fascination with the beauty and textures of decayed celluloid is the basis for a series of stunning works, most famously his spectacular multi-media “Decasia,” that reclaim and remold our perceptions of what silent cinema looks and feels like—literally reviving films from the dead, a kind of reanimation of cinematic corpses. “The Great Flood” is more history than pure art work: Constructing a chronological retelling of the flood’s events, Morrison has painstakingly sought out and edited together documentary footage shot in several States where the flood hit hardest, especially in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. As always, he’s collaborated with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and his group for a soundtrack (recorded live in Seattle’s Moore Theatre). That’s meant to be a contemporary response to history.

Huge downpours (at one point, New Orleans was hit with 15 inches of rain in 18 hours) pounded the Midwest and South during the entire winter of 1926 and into early 1927, causing unprecedented swelling of tributaries flowing into the big river. Morrison shows the weather and raging waters, but he’s most interested in the social impact: Pre-flood cotton growing on the bountiful Delta, with images worthy of Eisenstein; the desperate, hopeless attempts to shore up levees as the flood comes; the concentration camps built only for African Americans, while white Southerners are seen escaping harm’s way boarding trains in their Sunday best; the incredible damage to small towns left in the flood’s horrible wake, looking like a giant monster had ripped through it; the massive emigration by rail of countless African Americans, headed north when farm work was impossible.

Disaster causes fundamental change. The great 1755 Lisbon earthquake, causing many to ponder if there really was a God, triggered the Age of Enlightenment. Morrison’s movie doesn’t explain the full impact of the Great Flood on America and the profound population and racial shifts it caused. But all of this is suggested, especially in its extraordinary final scenes of African Americans living in Chicago, from attending to church to just having fun and dancing up a storm. (Morrison loves to switch his footage from full speed to slow motion, to reveal more detail that our eyes would otherwise miss.) Free of the white man, free of the cotton fields and camps, they can boogie in the Chicago streets. A new world has begun.

Click HERE for the original article Review - January 9th, 2014

by Jordan Hoffman

"The movie on its own is great, but with this music it's sublime."

If there were still such things as record stores the music of Bill Frisell would be filed under jazz. This isn’t entirely accurate, even with jazz’s highly elastic definition, as Frisell – a guitarist and composer – is one of those musicians whose work blurs all lines and leaps across all genres. His catalogue includes small combo improv jams, forays into elaborate “world music” with esoteric instrumentation, aggressive rock explorations featuring feedback and digital delay, and complex, sometimes atonal compositions. He also has an “Americana” streak as wide as the great outdoors, using his inimitable voicing to glide through consonant, oftentimes melancholy melodies that sound as if you’ve known them your entire life.

I’ve always felt that this aspect of his work was, to use a phrase as ambiguous as jazz, “cinematic.” Sometimes, when I’ve walked around listening to albums like 1998′s “Gone, Just Like A Train,” 2002′s “The Willies” or 2009′s “Disfarmer” on my headphones, I’ve constructed elaborate fantasies in my head like I’ve become the head of a major studio and I’ve got a major film director begging me to greenlight his movie and I say, from behind a cloud of cigar smoke, “you can make the picture on one condition, a wall-to-wall original score by Bill Frisell.”

Well, “The Great Flood” isn’t quite a big budget bonanza, but it might actually be more appropriate. Commissioned by a coalition of arts organizations, director Bill Morrison has assembled over 80 minutes of startling found footage pertaining to the devastating Mississippi floods of 1927. This event displaced roughly a million people and had a major impact on American society. (You know all this, because Randy Newman wrote a song about it.) Separated into chapters (which become movements in Frisell’s symphony) we witness hardship, devastation, strategy, evacuation and rebirth. Working to the movie’s benefit is the decomposing nature of the surviving film stock. The corrupted nitrates and crackled frames lend an otherworldly air that ought to remind well-versed cinephiles of Stan Brakhage. Indeed, Morrison’s best known previous work, “Decasia,” is a found footage collage old, “damaged” films. (YouTube clips abound and they are far out.)

The visual aspect is 49% of the show at best. Morrison wisely cuts to the original score, which presents Frisell in peak form. With Frisell upfront on electric guitar, Ron Miles on trumpet, Kenny Wollesen on percussion and Tony Scherr on bass you get a nice taste from different plates. There’s the blazin’ Frisell, the peppy Frisell (this to images of the Sears Robuck catalogue and a tongue-in-cheek montage of visiting politicians) and, most importantly, the break-your-heart-into-a-thousand-pieces Frisell who can take a golden chord progression and ride it through with an articulate unpredictability unmatched by just about any other musician today. Put the two pieces together, you have a rich and emotional experience that takes images otherwise lost to history and gives them the breath of life.

The movie on its own would have been nice, but with this music, it’s sublime. If you can make it without sobbing through the “Migration” sequence which leads into a quiet version of “Old Man River” you are a stonier individual than I.

SCORE: 9.0 / 10

The film is playing this week (Jan 8 – 15) at the IFC Center in New York. It then travels to Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC and, hopefully, the art house and/or museum space near you. Icarus Films will be handling the eventual home video release.  Original article HERE


Top 11 Films of 2014 - December 22nd, 2014

by Jordan Hoffman

A collaboration between Bill Morrison, the avant-garde archaeologist of lost and often fortuitously decayed film, and Bill Frisell, one of the galaxy’s most exciting instrumentalists and composers. Together they do what mankind has always done – they tell a story they heard from their elders about something terrible that happened, in this case the 1927 Louisiana flood. I don’t know if this is documentary or non-narrative experiment or a prolonged music video for people of peculiar taste. All I know is that it is gorgeous and haunting and altogether human and important. The biggest question is why there aren’t more movies like it? I’ve seen the film three times – twice on DVD and once “live” with Frisell and his band performing the score as the picture was projected behind them at the Museum of Modern Art. In my review from January 9th I was so bowled over by the music that I hardly wrote about the film. The images Morrison selected are so harrowing (and, occasionally, funny) that it seems almost inappropriate that they play against such a gorgeous score. The Great Flood is a benediction back through history and you owe it to past generations – and yourself – to pay attention. Original article HERE


Great Songs About The Great Flood

WNYC Soundcheck with John Schaefer

Aired January 7, 2014

WYNC Soundcheck segment with host John Schaefer, discussing "The Great Flood", Bill Frisell, and Flood music with director Bill Morrison

Click HERE