My favorite type of novel is when an author takes obscure subject matter or a little known historical occurrence then expands upon it, slipping in a perspective to make entertaining reading. I gain knowledge in an area where I had little or none without the drudge of academic study, all in the midst of pleasure.
That’s how I felt when I stumbled upon the films of Roberta Cantow. Earlier I reviewed Clotheslines. Now she’s just released Accordions Rising. Originally, I wasn’t necessarily attracted but remembered the unique spin she put on Clotheslines, which was really a statement on the status of women. So I watched the new one and became engaged just as I do with the type of novel I mentioned.
This filmmaker moves you well beyond the instrument’s association with street vendors, Lawrence Welk and the polka to its surprising—for me—modern-day use in orchestral, experimental, jazz and ambient music. And history? How about accordion during rituals of Vodou’s Marie Laveau? Beyond the music itself, she features the accordionists giving voice on how they came to their instrument. These are the kind of stories I personally love, plus all the examples of its role in traditions across the world. Then there’s the power of the accordion that you can hear throughout the film. Depending on the focus of the musician, it can take you on an emotional ride. And I guarantee you’ll be tapping your foot.
I was curious as to what drew Roberta to undertake all the intense research, time and other investments a documentary requires to do well…for something so unpopular. So I wrote to her and asked. I learned as much from her answer as I did from the film. I’m sharing a bit with you here.
Let me start with this: The accordion, I have come to understand, is far less ‘obscure to mainstream’ than one might think. In fact, although I was not able to include all of these examples due to licensing issues, the list of musicians that play or include accordions is quite long. All with names that are familiar: Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, etc. The instrument was simply not foregrounded. It certainly did fall out of favor at one time, but there has been a resurgence for the last 20-30 years.
When I began, my knowledge of the instrument was thin. I had enjoyed a set of disks called Planet Squeezebox going all the way back to the late 80’s, the accordion in every corner of the world. In the 90’s I started seeing photographs and graphic images that piqued my interest. I attended the San Antonio International Accordion Festival, and it was as if I were lit up. I loved that it had a home in so many different cultures and styles of playing. I thought that it reflected the diversity in our culture (and our world) today. I was also extremely intrigued with the people who were using the accordion differently and unexpectedly in new music and avant-garde forms. My eyes were opened wide to the versatility and various passions of the players. I felt that it didn’t deserve to be ‘maligned’ the way it was, so I set out to set the record straight. I begin the film with these words…. ‘I have often been drawn to the misunderstood….’ and that is true of the subjects of many of my films.
With both of Roberta Cantow’s films I’ve seen thus far, a major take-away: When you think you know something—if you take it at face value—you don’t know anything.
If you have Amazon Prime, you can see it for free or $2.99 otherwise. And tell her what you think in the rating and reviews section.