Before the Music Dies

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/02/07 17:44:03

"A good point, horribly made."
1 stars (Sucks)

The music industry sucks.

There. I just said in four words what it took “Before the Music Dies” to say in ninety rambling, pointless minutes. This is a documentary simple in intent but unfocused in its central arguments; its meandering ways leave you dissatisfied with the whole mess.

Here’s what we get in the first few minutes of the film: a clip of a vintage television performance with Ray Charles and Billy Preston; an intro from filmmakers Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen, who discuss how the recently loss of music-loving loved ones led them to make this movie; a quickie journey through the history of American music, explaining how “our music defines us.” None of this - and I do mean not a single frame of any of this - has anything to do with what is to follow. The Charles/Preston performance, while wonderful, is useless filler. The filmmakers’ intro does nothing, as the movie itself is not, as the intro would make it seem, a personal journey of these two men, who never make another appearance. The history of American music makes for a cute primer but works only to say “the people we interviewed sure like music;” as for its relevance, there is none, unless maybe a slight point about how there’s a whole lot of stuff out there that’s not pop, and why doesn’t anybody listen to that for a change?

Next up is an incoherent jumble of half-baked contentions and over-assuming babblings, all with a fine intended point: the music industry is so near-sighted in its business plans that it almost always fails to recognize real talent, that it ignores genuine artists in favor of promoting easy-to-sell vapid pop stars, that it is only concerned with making a quick buck.

The surprising thing here is how Shapter and Rasmussen express shock and disbelief at basic facts that pretty much everybody already knows. They present their movie as a heartfelt bit of we’ve-got-to-take-a-stand-and-make-a-change! rabble-rousing, but do they really think anybody will be stunned to discover that major corporations put financial interests before all else?

Judging from the film, you would believe that all of the problems with the music industry have only sprouted in the past decade or so. The dominance of shallow pop is played exclusively as a modern trend. The business-over-art angle is the lone doing of Clear Channel and today’s record labels. And when narrator Forest Whitaker discusses payola, his script fails to mention the infamous scandals of the 1950s and 60s. Considering how the film’s opening scenes suggest a firm knowledge of music history, the complete absence of Alan Freed and other notable disc jockeys of the early rock and roll era in this discussion of radio station corruption is a major blunder.

But then, Shapter and Rasmussen show no interest in making any solid arguments. Teenybopper fans get interviewed outside an Ashlee Simpson concert, so we can laugh at how these girls don’t know who Bob Dylan is - but that’s it. The filmmakers make no connection to these fans and the record companies who supply them with their pop stars or the radio station conglomerates who play the same songs fifty times a day. There’s no mention of how these kids, not the hardcore music buff, are corporations’ target audience, or of how it came to get that way.

And when the filmmakers do discuss Clear Channel and other super-group broadcast companies, the complaints are too light: they always play the same songs, the suits control the music, etc. There’s very little interest shown in the legalities of having one company own multiple radio stations (a bored, passing mention of one 1996 law is all we get), and there’s no effort put in to examine the history of how the record industry changed over the years, eventually becoming a very small collection of a few mega-companies. Shapter and Rasmussen want to complain, but they come across as the tired blatherings of a sweaty used record store employee who doesn’t really know much beyond what he read online somewhere once.

There’s not a single argument here that’s presented well. A talented blues guitarist is displayed as an example of artists losing record contracts because they’re not deemed as marketable; it’s a nice point, but it goes nowhere. Interviewees complain that looks are more important than talent; sure, but that’s nothing new, and while MTV might have heightened the problem, it didn’t invent it. And the internet doesn’t even get mentioned until two-thirds of the way in; instead of discussing how downloading has opened up new avenues for fans and new opportunities for artists, all we get is a little bit of “oh, people like to download stuff sometimes, and maybe that’ll help things, or maybe not, I dunno.”

More problems: There’s minor talk of how satellite radio is attracting those tired of the terrestrial variety, yet nobody bothers to go into any detail. What is it that supposedly makes satellite radio better? Could the same complaints - that the music stations play the same handful of pre-selected songs over and over with no variety - be applied to satellite broadcasters? (One could notice how a promo for XM Radio appears on the DVD, and how XM has broadcast an audio-only version of the film repeatedly. And then one could remember that nobody says anything bad about XM Radio in the movie. But one might also just be reaching a bit too much. Or maybe not.)

And what to make of the sequence early in the film, in which the filmmakers take a young model who can’t sing and produce a hit single for her? The idea, I think, was to show how style sells over substance. But what’s the point? The filmmakers describe this as an “experiment,” yet after showing how computers can fix pitch problems in her performance, and after showing us the crappy video they made for the stupid song they got her to sing, the whole thing gets dropped. The filmmakers don’t do anything else with the video - they don’t show it to the public, they don’t shop it around record companies. There’s zero follow-through.

After making the festival rounds, “Before the Music Dies” has been touring the nation as part of a grass roots campaign that’s pretty much as ineffective as the movie itself. As a call to action, the movie does nothing; it might ask us to support smaller/local artists, but chances are if you’re watching the movie at a public screening, you’re already supporting such acts. It hints at a better future in which the internet helps the little guy, but says nothing else that might do any good. It wants you to leave with a hatred of music corporations, but they couldn’t done that in a minute or two, just by turning on your local top forty station.

There are, of course, plenty of good points that could have been made with a movie like this, but that only makes the failure sting more. Shapter and Rasmussen have good intentions. They just don’t have anything else.

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