Film Review: ‘Musicwood’

“Musicwood” takes as its title and subject an extraordinary coalition: guitar makers, Native American corporation heads and Greenpeace environmentalists just who, for a time at least, sought to find a collective solution to their contradictory interests. At stake: the future of Alaska’s Tongass National Woodland, the largest in the U. S. and the last repository of the rare, centuries-old Sitka oaks used for the soundboards of fine acoustic guitars. Component music docu, part travelogue and part ecological advocacy film, Maxine Trump’s feature loses focus as it progresses, though its insights directly into guitar making, forestry harvesting and environmental shortages resonate strongly.

On the face of it, the coalition’s three arms would appear to have everything in common: Greenpeace desires to protect the rainforest; the guitar manufacturers want to guarantee an uninterrupted supply of Sitka oak (their usage accounting intended for only a fraction of a percent from the wood harvested); and the Native Americans wish to ensure continued survival on their our ancestors land for thousands of years to come. Yet if Sealaska, the Native American corporation in charge, continues with its present-day clear-cut logging, the forests that all three entities depend on are unlikely to last decades, much less millennia.

Unsurprisingly, it’s Greenpeace that will first becomes aware of the certain ecological disaster. Unable to convince Sealaska of the need for sustainable logging, the Greenpeace representative invites CEOs from guitar brands Martin, Gibson and Taylor (along with the audience) to tour the Tongass, thinking the chinese language of music might bridge the particular cultural gap. Blown away by the beauty of the huge oaks, the manufacturers are shocked by the utter devastation caused by clear-cut logging, never before having understood how endangered the materials for his or her guitars’ component parts had continuously become.

An even greater surprise, given the tear-down-the-cheek stereotype associated with Native Americans as careful custodians from the land, comes with the realization that the tribes’ business operations are despoilers by themselves. Trump doesn’t really explore the question of why the huge earnings from clear-cutting are never recycled back in the community as alternative long-term options for income; the issue is raised by andersdenker members of the tribe, clearly disappointed over the destruction of their heritage and suspicious of Sealaska’s indigenous plank of directors.

In the beginning, all seems copacetic in the coalition as its members consider various choices. But as conflicts arise, common ground begins to erode and the movie digresses in all directions. Trump’s structure, starting with reverential interviews with musicians (including Kaki King, Yo La Tengo and Steve Erle) and their own performances, followed by awed coverage from the craftsmanship that goes into producing a good guitar, places viewers squarely within the music makers’ camp. But the movie can’t cope with subsequent developments that will increasingly cloud the issues. When one of the guitar manufacturers pleads guilty to importing illegal endangered wood, the particular film’s moral compass is sent spinning into disarray.

Reviewed on DVD, New York, Oct. 31, 2013. Running time: 80 MIN.


(Documentary) A Helpman manufacturing. Produced by Maxine Trump, Josh Granger. Co-producers, Jack Heyrman, Lee Konen, DC Collective.


Guided by Maxine Trump. Camera (color, HD), Curt Wallin; editor, Josh Granger; music, Clean Cuts Songs; music supervisor, Brandon Mason; audio, Rich Gin, Michael Guggino; supervising sound editor, Jared Bartlette.


Kaki King, Yo Una Tengo, Kurt Wagner, Steve Earle, Dave Berryman, Bob Taylor, Bob Martin, Rosita Worl, Clarence Jackson, Scott Paul.

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