The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God

January 9, 2012

The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God is a beautiful documentary with an unlikely subject: the history of the Shakers, an odd, utopian religious sect that flourished in the early part of America’s history.

As the hour-long program tells it, the Shakers—so nicknamed because of their high-energy ritual dances—began with an English woman named Mother Ann Lee. When she brought her religious ideas to the American colonies in 1774, she established an order that quickly became famous for its austere lifestyle.

The hallmarks of the Shakers were their pacifism, their communism (and I use that word generically; the Shakers shared all their worldly possessions equally), and their celibacy. Completely celibate, their ranks were filled by converts, not with persons born to the sect.

The Shakers were also known for their dances. One observer compared their early, frenzied ceremonies to “witches over a black cauldron”—an interesting image, considering their other, utterly strait-laced rituals. After the first few years of their existence, Shaker dancing became more exact and refined.

Perhaps the lasting contribution of the Shakers was their exquisite craftsmanship, much of which still exists today. The documentary shows the lovely chairs, clothes, tables and architecture produced by the sect, and suggests that it was their attempt to become close to God (and, perhaps, the sublimation of their sexual energy) that created the careful, practical but exalted furniture.

The Shaker villages that sprang up through the next few decades (first in New England, but ranging as far as Kentucky and Ohio) were austere; as one Shaker said proudly, “Order is heaven’s first law. There is not in the whole village one line of ornament.” We see the villages as they stand today, and the statement is quite true.

Their pacifism was legendary. We hear of their reaction to thievery: When they discovered theft from their fields, the Shaker response was to plant more crops. As the Shakers reasoned it, the thieves needed food, too.

This documentary details the heyday of Shakerism: the 1840s, when transcendentalism and utopian ideals were on many minds, including those of writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Shakers, who numbered about 6,000, seemed to be making the utopian ideal a reality. Hawthorne said of them, “If it were not for their ridiculous ceremonies, a man could not do a wiser thing than join them.”

We also see the long decline, as members fell away in the early part of this century. Today there are still a dozen Shakers hanging on in New England, the last practitioners of the order.

The interviews with the survivors—all elderly ladies in this program—are fascinating. The last Shakers communicate great serenity and a quiet hope that somehow Shakerism will not perish. They perform Shaker songs and dances—and at this point, the program, directed by Ken Burns and Amy Stechler Burns, becomes a living record of practices that will almost surely disappear completely within a few years.

These interviews are interspersed with many old drawings and photographs, which are seen against the backdrop of folk music and David (“Smithsonian World”) McCullough’s narration. Most valuable of all are the quotes from Shaker members and leaders, read by Julie Harris and others.

The sect always was relatively small, but it had surprising sway. Aside from philosophical influence, the Shakers developed a number of practical inventions, including the circular saw. Seeing this program, the influence still holds; you can’t help but feel slightly more exalted yourself, having spent time with these people.

First published in the Seattle Times, August 23, 1985

I spent the summer doing the TV column at the Seattle Times, and this VHS cassette came across the desk one day, just another PBS documentary – this was six years before The Civil War and the making of the Ken Burns brand. Which is another way of saying I’m glad I didn’t get this one wrong; Burns is very, very good, even if easily parodied (most distinctive people can be easily parodied), and his recent six-parter on the National Parks – an extraordinary work – proves he’s actually getting better as he goes along.


Stop Making Sense

February 11, 2011

“I’m an ordinary guy,” sings David Byrne in the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.” Audiences being exposed to Byrne’s vulture-eyed, bone-rattling, and utterly mesmerizing presence may be forgiven for questioning the truth of his lyric; he’s truly one of the most bizarre and dynamic rock figures ever captured on film. He’s the lead singer, songwriter, and guiding force of the Talking Heads, and he also directed their 1983 stage shows, of which Stop Making Sense is the cinematic record. The film has another director, Jonathan Demme (of Melvin and Howard), whose cinematic conception of this concert—and it’s all music, no interviews or backstage hijinks—harmonizes exactly with Byrne’s vision.

I can’t tell you how good it is to see a concert done justice by film; as a rule, this is the deadliest of film genres. It’s been widely noted that Demme has gone in for lengthier camera takes, rather than the usual cut-cut-cut of most concert movies. True enough, but how does this make Stop Making Sense a superior concert film? For one thing, it lays the burden of interest squarely on the performers; they have to sink or swim without fancy editorial tricks to distract the viewers. The band must build its performance from within; there’s a strong sense of the music growing internally (rather than being a series of songs laid end to end). That’s especially important here, because the music is designed in complicated, circular rhythms that irresistibly draw you in. (This style also fits the shape of the concert: Byrne starts out alone onstage with a guitar and a ghetto-blaster, and is gradually joined by other band members as the group grows into a nine-person band—even mutating into the Tom Tom Club for a delightful “Genius of Love”—and the music gets increasingly hotter.)

Demme’s camera seems to work its way into the flow of the concert; it’s as though we understand it from inside. During the song “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” Demme’s camera watches drummer Chris Frantz, who has just come onstage, and Byrne, playing guitar in front of him. Demme lets the shot run for a while as the two pound through the song. Then the camera drifts straight back, just a bit, and we see the other person on stage: bassist Tina Weymouth, happily frugging away to Byrne’s left. You know she’s been there the whole time, and somehow the camera’s adjustment to include her is gratifying—it’s an acknowledgment that the concert has a life of its own, outside of the film frame.

Demme’s objective is not to adapt the concert into a film, but to integrate film into the concert. I’m not sure that’s been done successfully before. The ecstatic high point of this fusion between the movement of the concert and the style of the film comes during “Girlfriend is Better,” as the band shouts the words “Stop Making Sense.” Byrne waves the microphone at the light man who has come onstage, and the man leans in for a chorus. On the next beat, Byrne pivots and finds…us. He’s looking into the camera, and—what the hey—he waves the mike our way for a moment. Movie and concert really have become one. I don’t see a lot of concert films, because they’re usually a sorry bunch. So, although I can’t claim to be an expert on the disreputable subject, Stop Making Sense is certainly the best concert movie I’ve ever seen.

First published in The Informer, November 1984

A very good moment in music-movie history. The movie played a nice long run at the Market Theatre in Seattle, and its arrival seemed to suggest an interesting life slithering into existence in the same world inhabited by Stranger Than Paradise and Repo Man and other such titles. I’m not sure anything ever quite developed from that (maybe it came to fruition in the 1990s), but it was nice while it lasted.

The Unheard Music

February 8, 2011

The term “rockumentary” may never be the same after the demolition job of This is Spinal Tap, which parodied the form mercilessly. But somehow, people can still make documentaries about rock ‘n’ roll with a straight face—witness last fall’s frequently painful Bring on the Night, with Sting.

However, we have proof that good rockumentaries can exist, as long as they don’t keep a straight face. Such a film is The Unheard Music, which chronicles the growth of the Los Angeles band X, an innovative group that exploded during the Los Angeles punk scene of the late ’70s.

The film, written and directed by W.T. Morgan, is a shoestring affair five year in the making, so we see snatches of the band at different stages in their growth. The four musicians are an odd crew, and a highly entertaining one: energetic drummer D.J. Bonebrake, blond, bland-faced guitarist Billy Zoom (who has since left the bad), bassist-vocalist John Doe, and the heart of the group, the highly unusual, weirdly touching vocalist, Exene Cervenka.

Exene’s vocals will either strike you as incoherent squalling or a super-charged cry of anguished concern. Or both, maybe.

Interspersed with performance clips and impromptu moments with the band members—Bonebrake doodling the themes from TV shows on his vibes, Exene and Doe harmonizing to Hank Williams songs—are nutty commercials and public-service announcements, largely ’50s-era. Morgan keeps the film skipping along from one thing to another—chronology is only slightly heeded—and there’s never a dull moment.

Others appear in the film—some soft-headed record company officials, sympathetic disc jockeys, and the producer of X on record, Ray Manzarek. Manzarek was a member of the Doors, and there’s a nice moment when he joins X in a hard-driving version of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen.”

Much of the film is about the struggle by X to find airplay in the notoriously rigid world of radio (The Unheard Music is an all-too-fitting title), and to find a supportive record company. One record exec reports he’s starting to think that, if they were a bit more commercial, X may just have the capability to be another Eagles or Fleetwood Mac, a pronouncement the band would no doubt find heartily amusing. X, thank heaven, has no intention of being the next Eagles, and more power to them for that.

First published in the Herald, March 1986

In 1986 documentaries were not opening for regular theatrical runs on an almost weekly basis as they are today. So catching up with something like The Unheard Music, and actually getting a chance to see and hear a great band like X at length, was pretty special. I don’t remember much about the maligned Bring on the Night, but I’ll look for my review of it, and keep the “music movie” theme going for a few days.