Sydney Film Festival: This Ain\'t No Mouse Music

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The ‘less is more’ principle is amiss here. If you’ve got a hundred real life stories competing to squeeze into 92 minutes, the idea is tell a handful of those stories well.

This Ain’t No Mouse Music – a good-but-not-great documentary about the American roots label Arhoolie Records and its founder, Chris Strachwitz – tries to juggle too much. It speeds through Arhoolie’s massive catalogue, making it the cinematic equivalent of a scratched compilation disc. At its worst, it’s a list of artists with sound-bites. But at its best, it whets your sonic appetite and makes you want to find out more about these often wonderful sounds.

Strachwitz’s true character emerges too late in the film. He’s initially introduced as an almost avuncular type – the patron saint of roots music. It’s not until towards the end of this film that you understand he’s far more complex than initially presented. He’s not always Mr. Nice Guy. He’s idiosyncratic. He’s a perfectionist… He’s interesting. But due to the filmmakers’ hunger to touch on just about bloody everything Arhoolie’s released in 50 years, Strachwitz’s own story, to a certain extent, gets sidelined and the intricacies of his character are lost.

Born in a German village that is today part of Poland, Strachwitz came to the US with his family as a post-War teenager. He soon fell head over heels with American roots music and set about capturing the sounds, and building the influential Arhoolie label. If it wasn’t for Strachwitz, says guitar legend Ry Cooder in this doco, this music may have been lost.

The Arhoolie catalogue influenced Cooder and countless others – it’s an important part of the story of 20th century music and its significance is established here, but we spend too little time with such artists as bluesman Mance Lipscomb, who Strachwitz ‘discovered’. Mance is worth a documentary in himself, as are so many of the others taken in at lightning speed, like Big Joe Williams, and the towering blues guitar talent of Mississippi Fred McDowell, who’s mentioned in passing.

There are, however, more details on a smattering of artists – the rocking Big Mama Thornton gets a tad more screen time. As does the Cajun joy of the Savoy Family Band.

For all the above complaints, this is still an enjoyable and watchable if not satisfying film – the music is often uplifting, always authentic, and full of feel. Trainspotters may know all these acts, but for me there were many revelations – like Big Mama Thornton, who lent her gutsy howl to ‘Hound Dog’ four years before Elvis did. And one of Strachwitz’s more recent discoveries – young Appalachian band No Speed Limit and their gifted singer Amber Collins.

As I write this, I’m finding my Inner Hillbilly, playing No Speed Limit on YouTube and listening to the perfect bluegrass of Amber Collins. Maybe this doco has done its job after all…

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