Monday, October 10, 2016

78rpm: Forget Vinyl, Bring Back Shellac

For many record collectors, needle issues are real barriers to entering the 78 collector market. Yes, they really do need to be changed after one or two uses. Plus, those shellac disks are a nightmare to ship. Yet, there are plenty of vintage 78 recordings that have never been reissued on subsequent formats. More importantly for 78 enthusiasts, they just sound like an old school time-warps from the past. The nostalgia is contagious in Joel Schlemowitz’s slightly and politely experimental documentary 78rpm (trailer here), which opens a weekend engagement this Friday in New York.

If you think 78s are difficult to handle, just try Edison cylinders. The flat playing record was indeed quite a consumer-friendly innovation, but the initial development was complicated by a flurry of litigation. When the legal dust settled, Emile Berliner was left standing as the legit inventor of the Gramophone, as his grandson Oliver explains in Schlemowitz’s stylized black-and-white talking head sequences.

Believe it or not, you can still make some kind of a living as a Gramophone repairman. In fact, business is on the upswing, thanks to renewed interest from the Jazz Age and Steampunk scenes. Of course, many 78s are just interested in the music, such as jazz musician interview subjects Loren Schoenberg and Vince Giordano. 78rpm argues jazz was the first form of music to be documented from the time of its origins, thanks to the advent of 78s. That is an interesting way of looking at it—and essentially true, but we are still sadly missing documentation of Buddy Bolden, jazz musician zero.

In between interview segments and field reports capturing the retro 78 lifestyle, Schlemowitz stages what could be considered “music videos” for representative yet somewhat obscure 78 tracks from the likes of Ted Lewis, Paul Whiteman, and Wilbur Sweatman. Easily the most entertaining interlude features dancers Nana Masuda, Kaoru Matsuoka, and Masae Satouchi performing Matsuoka’s choreography for the Victor Concert Orchestra’s “Narcissus” and Art Landry’s dramatically more upbeat “Rip Saw Blues.”

One thing comes through loud and clear during 78rpm. If you enjoy listening to recorded music, thank Enrico Caruso. He single-handedly built Victor Records and made the record business a viable industry. For a refreshing change of pace, Schlemowitz and company also make record collecting look like a heathy and social pursuit, rather than a compulsive obsession. Schlemowitz’s experimental-avant-garde aesthetic in reflected throughout the film, yet it is frequently informative and always great fun. You do not have to be a record collector to dig 78rpm, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Highly recommended for fans of Americana music and idiosyncratic cultural history, 78rpm screens this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (10/14-10/16) in New York, at Anthology Film Archives.