Review: 'The Great Flood'

If there were still such things as record stores the music of Bill Frisell would be filed under jazz. This isn't entirely accurate, even with jazz's highly elastic definition, as Frisell – a guitarist and composer – is one of those musicians whose work blurs all lines and leaps across all genres. His catalogue includes small combo improv jams, forays into elaborate “world music” with esoteric instrumentation, aggressive rock explorations featuring feedback and digital delay, and complex, sometimes atonal compositions. He also has an “Americana” streak as wide as the great outdoors, using his inimitable voicing to glide through consonant, oftentimes melancholy melodies that sound as if you've known them your entire life.

I've always felt that this aspect of his work was, to use a phrase as ambiguous as jazz, “cinematic.” Sometimes, when I've walked around listening to albums like 1998's “Gone, Just Like A Train,” 2002's “The Willies” or 2009's “Disfarmer” on my headphones, I've constructed elaborate fantasies in my head like I've become the head of a major studio and I've got a major film director begging me to greenlight his movie and I say, from behind a cloud of cigar smoke, “you can make the picture on one condition, a wall-to-wall original score by Bill Frisell.”

Well, “The Great Flood” isn't quite a big budget bonanza, but it might actually be more appropriate. Commissioned by a coalition of arts organizations, director Bill Morrison has assembled over 80 minutes of startling found footage pertaining to the devastating Mississippi floods of 1927. This event displaced roughly a million people and had a major impact on American society. (You know all this, because Randy Newman wrote a song about it.) Separated into chapters (which become movements in Frisell's symphony) we witness hardship, devastation, strategy, evacuation and rebirth. Working to the movie's benefit is the decomposing nature of the surviving film stock. The corrupted nitrates and crackled frames lend an otherworldly air that ought to remind well-versed cinephiles of Stan Brakhage. Indeed, Morrison's best known previous work, “Decasia,” is a found footage collage old, “damaged” films. (YouTube clips abound and they are far out.)

The visual aspect is 49% of the show at best. Morrison wisely cuts to the original score, which presents Frisell in peak form. With Frisell upfront on electric guitar, Ron Miles on trumpet, Kenny Wollesen on percussion and Tony Scherr on bass you get a nice taste from different plates. There's the blazin' Frisell, the peppy Frisell (this to images of the Sears Robuck catalogue and a tongue-in-cheek montage of visiting politicians) and, most importantly, the break-your-heart-into-a-thousand-pieces Frisell who can take a golden chord progression and ride it through with an articulate unpredictability unmatched by just about any other musician today. Put the two pieces together, you have a rich and emotional experience that takes images otherwise lost to history and gives them the breath of life.

The movie on its own would have been nice, but with this music, it's sublime. If you can make it without sobbing through the “Migration” sequence which leads into a quiet version of “Old Man River” you are a stonier individual than I.

SCORE: 9.0 / 10

The film is playing this week (Jan 8 – 15) at the IFC Center in New York. It then travels to Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC and, hopefully, the art house and/or museum space near you. Icarus Films will be handling the eventual home video release.