Film Review: Musicwood

Trees are the majestic but tragic stars of this compelling documentary about an Alaskan fight over precious wood.

There is widespread concern for human rights and animal rights of every stripe, but after seeing Musicwood, I am now a firm believer in plant rights. Actually, I have always derived just as much long-lasting pleasure and fulfillment from trees as I have from any animal, and the sight in this film of acres of pristine rainforest in Alaska completely demolished is absolutely devastating.

This specific area, known as the Tongass National Forest, is the largest natural park in America and the subject here of a tug of war between three concerns. The first is Sealalaska, the company which owns the forest, comprised of Native Americans who gained ownership as part of a retribution package and are adamant about maintaining their way of doing things. The next is Greenpeace, unsurprisingly aghast at the way the forest's natural resources are being depleted at staggering rates, and finally a consortium of prominent guitar makers (Gibson, Martin, etc.) who need the rare type of spruce in Tongass to manufacture their instruments. At the heart of the dilemma is Sealaska's practice of clear-cutting, the logging practice in which most or all trees in an area are uniformly cut down. To call this "harvesting," observes someone, is a misnomer, as it is really mining, for those doing the chopping had absolutely nothing to do with growing the trees.

This extremely well-done doc sheds important light on the situation, and the conflict between these concerned interests is very dramatic, with its high-stakes repercussions. The elite Native Americans who represent Sealaska decidedly do not come off very well, particularly Dr. Rosita Worl, a real corporate type who dons ill-fitting traditional Indian wear for special-occasion addresses to the native populace. She spearheads events like the First Tree ceremony; this rite, wherein the first tree to be cut is blessed and thanked, has no traditional basis according to other natives interviewed here, and is just plain silly. One woman wonders where exactly all the money is that is supposed to come to her and other so-called shareholders of the forest trust, as most natives' existences are below the poverty line. That prayer uttered over the felled tree is seemingly more of a curse to those who cannot count themselves among the native elite, she says. The fact that Sealaska is still owed some 80,000 acres of land muddies and confuses things, and is somehow allowed to take precedence over any other concern. (Worl even gets to say, "White man speak with forked tongue.")

Numerous musicians—Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle, Kaki King, Lambchop—are interviewed, extolling their prized guitars and the fine, ever-rarer materials which go into their making. The guitar team is given an Alaska tour, marvel at the wildlife and flora, and are dismayed by the acres of felled wood they see. The Sealaska group is thrilled with the PR value of the music business coming so far to meet with them, but it all dissolves into so much hype, with the basic issue still unresolved. Seeing up-close the harsh realities of business-as-usual dominating the issue, the guitar consortium realizes they must now be resigned to making do with lesser manufacturing materials—i.e., inferior woods. (Gibson even ran afoul of authorities when it was discovered they were using contraband rosewood from Madagascar, an event which occurred during the film's making.)