Film Review: America's Musical Journey

Singer Aloe Blacc takes viewers on a musical tour of the U.S., backed by spectacular IMAX photography.
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Even the corny moments work in America's Musical Journey, a 3D IMAX documentary from MacGillivray Freeman Films. A whirlwind survey aimed at younger viewers, the piece doesn't have the time to do much more than introduce themes and personalities. Still, its upbeat, positive tone, aided by Morgan Freeman's narration, should appeal to the students who will make up much of the film's audience.

IMAX cameras soaring over Los Angeles at night bring us to Aloe Blacc, a son of Panamanian immigrants whose influences include classical, jazz and folk. Blacc serves as a guide to regional music, talking with bandleader Jon Batiste in New Orleans, pianist Ramsey Lewis in Chicago and banjo prodigy Willow Osborne in Nashville, using their input to compose a song about his own journey as a performer. One especially moving scene finds Blacc jamming with the autistic Reid Moriarty, who uses music to communicate to others with his condition.

While some styles pass by in an instant, America's Musical Journey manages to hit on folk, country, Cajun, gospel, R&B and other major strands that play important parts in our musical heritage. At the same time, IMAX cameras offer up iconic sights: Times Square, Graceland, the headquarters of Motown Records.

Stephen Judson's script devotes the most time to Louis Armstrong, during his peak perhaps the most recognizable personality in the world. As Blacc sits with school kids on the steps of Armstrong's house in Queens, New York, Freeman points out that the musician, the grandson of slaves, was arrested as a gang member at twelve. He learned to play trumpet in reform school. On his success, he battled discrimination, opening doors for those who followed. It's the kind of empowering, inspiring story children need to know.

Some of the song choices in America's Musical Journey may seem too obvious, but there are reasons why these pieces are so popular. One disappointment is that the filmmakers have a tendency to interpret songs through dance more than instrumentation, perhaps to give large-format cameras more to work with.

This is the 43rd title from MacGillivray Freeman Films, the gold standard for large-format movies. America's Musical Journey may seem too optimistic, even patriotic, to cynical viewers. Others will be buoyed and proud that the immigrants and exiles, the jailed, the poor, the ill, the victims of discrimination included here could rise up to create so much lasting beauty for everyone to enjoy.

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