Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Maxine Trump, in her first feature-length film, shows admirable judgement."

The best guitars, we are told, have bodies of rosewood, necks of mahogany, fret boards of ebony and soundboards of spruce. These are very fine instruments indeed. The craftsmen who make them learned their skills from their fathers. Their sons, however, may not have the option of carry on the family tradition, as these precious woods are fast disappearing.

Greenpeace is on a mission to save the last great Alaskan spruce forests (and, in a brief detour, the rosewood of Madagascar) before it's too late. Recruiting some of the greatest guitar makers in the business, it takes them on a tour of the affected areas. It's a cynical strategy but an effective one. We see attitudes change as these men go from delight at the beauty of the great outdoors to horror at the sight of huge swathes of clear cut land - as they go from sometime rivals bonding on a boat trip to possible campaigners themselves.

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With beautiful forest landscapes to linger on and the perfect excuse for a melodic guitar soundtrack, it would be difficult to make an unattractive film. With the tendency for sentiment around this subject, however, it would be easy to make a heavy handed one, and with the apparent simplicity of the issues involved it would be easy to make one that was too dogmatic. Maxine Trump, in her first feature-length film, shows admirable judgement. She applies a light touch where necessary and yet shows sufficient journalistic incisiveness to get at the complexity of the matter, never as simple as it seems.

The first half of this film is impressively made but essentially formulaic. There's the suspicion, the persuasion, the moment of discovery, the change of heart and, at last, the coming together of different interest groups to seek a solution. This cannot be an easy process. The forest land is owned by corporations set up to pay dividends to the indigenous people of the region. Whilst it's not clear that this money is actually getting to where it's supposed to go, it is clear that these people have a great need for it - images of poverty abound in their villages, with that familiar symbol of the displaced northerner, the listless huskies sniffing round the porch. If Greenpeace is to win trust and support, it needs to find an economic solution that works for everybody. The needs of these people cannot be dismissed, even if they now seem a long way from their traditional role as guardians.

Where Musicwood really stands out is in its second half - where it keeps going beyond the apparent solutions, beyond the Hollywood ending, into much darker and more complex territory. It slides into a minor key.

A lyrical film, with evocative cinematography and emotive yet insightful interviews, Musicwood carries its tune well and is well worth seeking out.

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2013
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Musicwood packshot
Guitar makers set out to try and save the last great forests where the woods they use can be found.

Director: Maxine Trump

Starring: Dave Berryman, Kaki King, Chris Martin, Bob Taylor

Year: 2012

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: US, Madagascar


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