The impact of technology on music is a hot – if familiar – topic as of late, but the history of sound recording technology has largely been overlooked in popular culture.
“I started to discover early musical recordings and thought they had this incredibly raw, exciting sound – raw energy like early films have – and I was fascinated as to why these recordings got made and why we knew so little about the artists,” British director Bernard MacMahon (pictured below) tells realscreen.
Raw energy is what the first-time documentary filmmaker wanted to recreate in American Epic Sessions, a feature-length film and three-part series about the birth of modern music slated to air on PBS and the BBC this fall.
Screening this week at the SXSW Film Festival following its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last year, the American Epic Sessions documentary captures a rotating cast of music stars including Jack White, Elton John, Nas (pictured), Willie Nelson, Alabama Shakes and Merle Haggard as they record using antique 1920s equipment.
Meanwhile, the related series will look back at nine artists who recorded on the first electrical sound recording systems that travelled across the U.S. between 1926 and 1931.
Up to that point, recorded music was generally confined to cities, so the open-call sessions that took place in cities between New York City and Oahu, Hawaii, marked the first time working-class and minority voices were immortalized on wax in a commercialized way.
Those recordings eventually led to the development of blues, country, gospel, Hawaiian, Cajun, and folk music, but the people behind the voices are still unknown.
“There was this terrific meeting of commerce and art that seems to happen in America in the grandest fashion,” says MacMahon who conceived the idea for American Epic Sessions with Lomax Films producer Allison McGourty. “You heard these autobiographical songs and suddenly a woman picking cotton in Mississippi had her thoughts distributed throughout the whole country. That was democratization through music.”
On the advice of a friend, MacMahon pitched the series to Anthony Wall, executive producer of BBC’s flagship arts doc strand ‘Arena,’ who commissioned it. A deal with Sony Music to release music from the recording sessions featured in the films led to a meeting with PBS affiliate WNET in New York, which also came on board the project. (PBS Distribution is handling international sales.)
MacMahon also had three heavy-hitters on board to exec produce. Musician and producer T Bone Burnett (Crazy Heart, Inside Llewyn Davis) was signed up, and he in turn brought in his friend Robert Redford, as they were looking for a project to produce together. Then, MacMahon emailed analog music aficionado Jack White (pictured below) of The White Stripes and asked him to produce the recording sessions for the feature doc. Within five minutes, White wrote back to set up a meeting.
Most importantly, the producers had a fully restored working 1920s recording device, which had been reassembled in secret from spare parts by sound engineer Nick Berg in his Los Angeles studio. The machine comprises a six-foot-tall amplifier and is operated by pulley and 105-pound weight that slowly descends and spins a turntable that cuts a recording directly onto vinyl.
That process takes three minutes, hence the standard three-minute pop song.
To ensure the system would work and to figure out how MacMahon would film the recording sessions, producers found a 1930s-era recording studio in Los Angeles, emptied it out and brought in the gear and Burnett to produce a test session with two young acts: Frank Fairfield and a group called The Americans.
That test shoot would form the basis for a teaser and the eventual film, in which White presides over 20 single-take studio sessions. The recordings were shot over 21 days, with two back-to-back sessions booked in the mornings and afternoons each day.
“The idea was from day one that it had to be real,” explains the director. “The validity of the film would lie in, once that needle drops, you’re actually hearing the sound of what they’re recording. There were no production mics involved.”
Each performance was filmed in a single take. As the musician worked out an arrangement in the green room, MacMahon planned a dolly move that would match the flow of the song. Some musicians chose to cover songs from the era, while others brought in original material to record.
MacMahon wanted viewers to feel like they are standing in the studio watching the performance, so the camera never moves lower than a crouch or higher than someone standing on their tip toes.
“I’d have an idea in advance of what the set-up might be musically so I painted out lighting design and storyboards in advance. Those were in a constant state of flux,” he explains.
The look of the film is inspired by the classic horror films of James Whale, such as Bride of Frankenstein, with heavy shadows in the corners of the screen that also served to conceal the dolly and track the performers. Meanwhile, MacMahon and his director of photography communicated via intercom during the performances.
“I wanted a rich color palette so it looks like a Velazquez painting,” he says. “You had this beautiful lighting but it looked very natural in the studio. Everything was very discreet.”
Being as invisible as possible to the musicians was essential during the recording process as the microphone was so sensitive that a sudden move could completely change the sound mix.
He hopes viewers will reflect on the essence of what makes for a powerful performance, so giving himself similar creative limitations during filming was essential.
“It was like an Olympic event: they were trying to do the take of a lifetime in front of this one microphone,” says MacMahon. “Once it’s committed to that piece of wax, you can’t change anything.”
American Epic Sessions screens at SXSW today (March 16) at 11 a.m. CT at Austin’s Paramount Theatre. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.