High Lonesome

1994, NR, 95 min. Directed by Rachel Liebling. Starring Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin.

REVIEWED By Rob Patterson, Fri., March 25, 1994

High Lonesome isn't just the story of bluegrass music vividly and artfully rendered. It's the story of America, or rather, one story of America, refracted through the prismatic musical and cultural junction that was and still is bluegrass. Clipping along at a pace as brisk as the most spine-tingling banjo and fiddle breakdown, the film more than just documents bluegrass from its European and African antecedents to such latter-day proponents as fiddle prodigy Alison Krauss. It creates an almost dramatic flow that gives the movie a strong feature appeal that should entice even bluegrass neophytes to savor the allure of this honest, passionate rural string band style of music. Combining archival footage and photos with interview and performance segments, in which a closely framed intimacy imbues a front porch feel, High Lonesome may not be an exhaustive documentary (that would take at least a mini-series), but with over 100 songs and a keen thread of cultural and historical depth and breadth, it captures the heart and soul of the music and its inventor (Bill Monroe, whose lionesque presence brings a warm awe throughout), innovators and proponents. Linking the music's birth with the social upheaval of the Great Depression and following it through the maze of American modernity -- with its speedy rhythms and acoustic instrumentation, bluegrass may well be the first neo-traditional musical style -- Liebling wisely lets the music and the musicians do the talking, with legendary singer and guitarist Mac Wiseman providing the occasional narrative bridge. “Hearing them sing is like hearing them talk,” notes Krauss of bluegrass music's founding fathers towards the end of the movie. With graceful cinematography, deft editing, and a tangible compassion for the music and its makers, High Lonesome makes the personalities and the history of bluegrass sing as wonderfully as the music itself.

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