Monday, February 04, 2008

Film was just a tease for the full Hardly Strictly experience

As enjoyable as it was, I was disappointed that the Austin City Limits' film "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass" wasn't better. Unless there is a longer version for release on DVD, the one-hour program that aired nationally last weekend on PBS was a flagrant missed opportunity.

With five stages, seven hours per stage and two festival days, the ACL crew had up to 70 hours of footage available. To cut the whole thing down to 60 minutes meant eliminating most of the context and color that would have communicated what makes the event so special.

Watching this truncated version, I could tell that a lot of great artists performed, but I didn't get a sense of the place or the experience. For example, the viewer doesn't have any idea of the scheduling, the stages, or even the history of the event. Oddly, Warren Hellman isn't interviewed or shown on stage.

On the positive side, the images and sound are stunning. Golden Gate Park has a unique cast of light in the late afternoon, which was captured perfectly by the filmmakers. The multiple camera angles, including fly-over cameras on giant booms, made for unusual effects that are tastefully used.

Best of all are the performances. With the time constraints, nobody gets more than one song, but several of them are standouts that I did not catch when they were performed (because of the five stages).

The highlights for me were Gillian Welch and David Rawlings performing "Look At Miss Ohio,"Jim Lauderdale Band's "Lost In the Lonesome Pines," the Steve Earle-Allison Moorer duet on "Days Aren't Long Enough," and Robert Earl Keen with a twinkle in his eye belting out "Amarillo HIghway." Chris Smither's cameo was also an eye-opener.

I hope this comes out on video as a feature length film, or better as a six- or eight-hour compendium. There was so much great music at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2007. The PBS film only scratched the surface.

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