Reviewed by: Chris

Occasionally something hits you. There’s a whole world there. Right under your nose. One you never knew existed.

That’s the feeling watching Alex Reuben’s Routes. Music becomes more than its sound. It’s the experience. All the emotions that go with it. What it means in people’s lives. You can hear something beyond words.

Film can offer a selective (visual) reality. But replicating what is essentially kinaesthetic experience requires considerable ingenuity. Alex Reuben, on the basis of this film, has it in spades.

The first thing you notice about this road trip through the music of deep south USA is the lack of some know-all commentator. Telling you what to think, what to feel, what it all means. Thankfully, there are no words, no voiceovers, no interviewer. Our ‘road trip’ formula, bookending each live set with tracking shots of mountains, rivers evokes a sense of adventure and discovery. A sort of frontiersmanship. But instead of it being the story of a man with a camera, we see only what the camera sees. Not the man behind it. So we become the lens. The sights and sounds. It could be you doing the trip.

“I make films the same way I DJ,” says Alex. Although his first love is film, he has spent many hours behind the record decks. Seeing the skilful way in which this film is constructed, his concept becomes clearer, but don’t ask me what it means. Cue the scene. Static views of a detail of nature. Or simple travelling shots. Maybe he tied the camera to his truck (Alex tells me he made Routes for £20,000, “including the camera”.)

These brief interludes establish the lovely outback of Louisiana – or, in once case, the desolation from Hurricane Katrina. Music and dancers are always introduced inventively. We might be looking at someone’s garden and then a performance is staged by the front door. Dancing in people’s homes. In clubs and bars, a church, or a regular ‘barn dance’. A lone black man lockin’ and poppin’ at a deserted intersection. Dancing at Mardi Gras. Dancing barefoot on a piece of wood. Take me back to New Orleans. The routes back to the roots. And a testament to the warmth, artistry and vibrant energy of its people. We feel a growing bond with them that's eyond words. Joined in celebration of dance.

I lost track of the many dance forms. Having just watched the short film, Hoofin’ Irish Style (at the same Dance:Film Festival), where Riverdance met Brooklyn rooftops, I think I recognise something that looks like tap dancing with heavy boots. Or barfeoot. Huh – kinda fun! But then what looks to me like a hip form of cheerleading turns out to be ‘krumping’. Also featured are Appalachian bluegrass, clogging, Mississippi fife-and-drum blues, Memphis hip-hop, the Tuscarora Indian smoke dance, Louisiana Cajun, zydeco, buck dancing and swamp pop. Diverse! In the Q&A after the festival screening, a member of the audience notes wistfully: “People don’t dance on the street like that in this country.”

So is it a perfect film? Within its limits, yes (although I felt the Mardi Gras dragged a bit). Editing and cinematography are excellent, occasionally innovative. The director’s personal involvement with his subject has probably helped to elicit natural performances. Routes will introduce a wide audience to a rainbow assortment of music they’d probably never dreamt of. As well as sending out a warm and welcoming vibe about the good ol’ US of A. And let’s not forget: achieving it all on that minute budget is pretty clever. But where will he go from here?

First of all, if we are going to look at a bigger picture – if you’ll excuse the pun – there is no sense in getting carried away by the enthusiasm this film is clearly designed to generate. It brings out a hidden culture of music and dance. But if we compare it to, say, Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen, in which she overturns misconceptions about Voodoun music and dance in Haiti (also on a very small budget), then Routes is not going to look more than a bit of harmless fun in the long term. Or Fernando Schultz’ masterly Imperatriz Do Carnaval, in which he takes us from the African-Brasilian roots of music in the slums, to the Rio de Janeiro Carnaval competition, the largest popular arts event on the planet. Both these films contain an ethnographic content that goes beyond entertainment. A depth that Routes, for all its pleasurable delivery, only hints at.

At best, Routes is a valuable record of song and dance forms that have barely been documented. A worthy appendix for Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (to which Reuben pays homage in interviews and claims was the inspiration for the inspiration for the film).

Reviewed on: 28 May 2009
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An exploration of the folk music of the American Deep South.
Amazon link

Director: Alex Reuben

Year: 2007

Runtime: 48 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


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