Wednesday, August 22, 2012

American Anthem - Norah Jones

Like most people, I think, I have mixed feelings about Ken Burns's documentary projects. At times, he can seem like the fulfillment of the social consciousness of the 1930's, shining a light on the best aspects of America's history, while at other times his work seems tiresomely politically correct and predictable. His early efforts like Brooklyn Bridge [1981], The Shakers [1984], and The Civil War [1990] were better than anything ever done in the video medium on those subjects. Thomas Jefferson [1997] and Jazz [2001] were less successful. The National Parks: America's Best Idea [2009] and Baseball [2010], were better, but Prohibition [2011] gave what to my mind was a partial view of almost every aspect of the subject. Selectivity, of course, is a severe necessity in sifting through the wealth of material, written, filmed, recounted about major historical events, lest one be overwhelmed by information.

In some ways, the ambitious seven-part The War [2007--about World War II] presented fewer production and editing problems than The Civil War, even though the limitless "theaters" made telling anything like a complete story virtually impossible. One of Burns's narrative concepts is the "personalization" of history through the presentation of individual real life stories, using specificity of character, plight and setting (place) as concrete dramatic actions against the backdrop of huge movements of men and battles. This allowed real participants to narrate their own story--something that was literally impossible with the Civil War, a conflict now so remote from us in time that there are no living witnesses. In The Civil War, Burns was stuck with readers quoting from letters and diaries, or historians (like Shelby Foote) providing "human interest" anecdotes about notable Confederate generals.

One aspect of The War that resonated for me was the theme music, "American Anthem," a work originally composed by Gene Scheer in 1998, and performed at several notable national venues, prior to its being picked by Burns for his mini-series. Great music can turn a very good movie (or documentary) into a great one. The canny decision to have it sung by Norah Jones, whose fragile sweet singing style might seem totally unsuited to the piece (at least on an intuitive level), was sheer counter-intuitive genius. "American Anthem" can be sung solo or by chorus, and there's a temptation to treat it as a pedestrian martial performance piece, with stirring or gushing emphasis (as in this alternate approach). But Scheer's piece works more like a soft ballad than a traditional "anthem" for band.

Jones, by the way, in case you didn't know it, is the daughter of Ravi Shankar, and has built a career with a voice that is a fusion of jazz, pop, and country--a perfect combination of qualities to draw upon, one might think, to interpret a patriotic-cum-elegy ballad.

Norah Jones

Our National Anthem has never inspired much admiration as music. Its putative replacement, "America," though musically a more attractive song, is rather soft in its effect. I don't know how many other efforts over the years have been promoted to replace our current official anthem, but Scheer's would certainly work. Listening to Norah's version, it doesn't hurt either, knowing that the singer looks like Scheherazade!

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