Saturday, November 06, 2010

On-Tour in Iraq: Striking a Chord

With the success of the Surge, the nature of military service in the Iraqi theater is much safer and more predictable. Of course, that is a blessing, but it also means American military personnel have more time to get bored and dwell on their separation from loved ones. However, nothing works like music to console the weary soul. Even though they might not be household names, the military brings in a number of entertainers to play for the troops, including singer-songwriter Nell Bryden, whose second tour military tour of Iraq and Kuwait provides the structure of Susan Cohn Rockefeller’s Striking a Chord (trailer here), a documentary short now playing the festival circuit.

The USO books the big name stars. The Multinational Corps handles the professional gigging artists without the fame or the egos. One such musician is Brooklyn-born Nell Bryden, the first entertainer recruited by Lt. Col. Scott Rainey, the chief of programming for the Corps. A blues-and-roots influenced pop vocalist, Bryden is a charismatic performer and a good sport. She does not simply chopper in and out for her gigs. Rockefeller shows her visiting hospitals and touring bases, talking to anyone looking for a sympathetic ear. Indeed, the rapport she quickly establishes with soldiers appears deep and genuine.

It helps when you check your politics at the airport. Several of her band members agree, noting the deep personal connections they have been able to make once they jettisoned their own political baggage. Likewise, Rockefeller tries to play it straight and avoid partisanship, largely succeeding. While bookending the film with grim expert commentary on post-traumatic stress syndrome arguably has certain implications, she also gives voice to soldiers’ frustrations that none of the good news they see unfolding in Iraq is ever reported in the western media.

Still, the personal and musical connections forged between Bryden and the soldiers she meets lie at the heart of the film. A flexible performer, she shows a strong intuitive sense of where to take each show, from Skynyrd-esque country-rock to a more R&B bag. (Produced in conjunction with songwriter Nile Rodgers’ We Are Family Foundation, his monster hit penned for Sister Sledge not surprisingly makes the set list.)

Clearly sympathetic to the men and women serving in the military, Chord makes a good faith attempt to avoid the larger controversies surrounding the war. As a result, the forty minute film is one of the better documentaries about the Iraqi conflict, of any length. Recommended as a short doc with legitimately good intentions, Chord screens tomorrow (11/6) at the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival in Colorado Springs and next Friday (11/12) at the Red Rock Film Festival in Utah.