Filmmaker Bill Morrison shoots little film. Instead, he finds it. His documentaries, consisting almost entirely of original newsreel and other footage, are all about history, music, and disappearance. His 2011 film The Miners’ Hymn used archival footage from the British Film Institute to recapture the once teeming, now vanished collieries of northeast England. The eerie, brass-meets-electronics soundtrack to this otherwise wordless film was written by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. It adds dignity to the drudgery, mass struggle, and demise portrayed in the film. Morrison’s Decasia (a hybrid term that brings together “decay” and “fantasia,” he told Pasatiempo) is a flickering collage of decaying nitrate film stock that resurrects the dead and vanished from around the world. Its score was written by Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon. In it, the long gone look straight at the camera and directly through the years, their gaze poignantly interrupted by the film’s creeping entropy.
Morrison’s latest film knots the past and music even more tightly as it continues to find a thread between the decomposition of old film stock and art. The Great Flood shows archival footage of the landmark Mississippi River flood of 1927, an event that drove many Southern sharecroppers to Chicago and other Northern cities. Inside this great migration was a musical displacement as well. Delta blues music traveled north with the victims only to resurface as something different, something amplified and more sophisticated in the cities of the Midwest. The Great Flood’s soundtrack, written by guitarist Bill Frisell and recorded by Frisell, trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen, adds a distinct touch of melancholy as well as bits of modern lineage to a document of events largely forgotten.
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