Monday, February 02, 2004

Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener, projected video)

I wonder if my brother Dan, or his musician friends, would get more out of this documentary than I did. Clearly, Dowd's resumé is impressive - he was the primary recording engineer/producer at Atlantic Records for something like thirty years, and his career spans the great leaps forward in recording technology, from the early days when a band would be huddled around one microphone to record directly to vinyl all the way to today's digital techniques. There is clear admiration and respect in the way interview subjects like Eric Clapton and members of the Allman Brothers Band talk about him, and unvarnished affection when he surprises Ray Charles with a visit. Maybe Dan and his friends would see more nuances in what the film has to say about music production than I would, and perhaps they would find a sequence toward the end where Dowd plays with the original multitrack recordings of "Layla" fascinating rather than tedious. There may be hidden nuances that I can't recognize.

One of the main issues, I think, is that Dowd (who died in 2002) is so involved. He's a pleasant, likable guy, and his tours of the parts of New York City where he grew up and learned his craft are interesting, but the way the film is constructed is so deliberatelly a flattering portrait that it was impossible to miss things being left out - there's nothing about his personal life, or what went on at Atlantic Records outside his recording studio, or anything negative about him at all. Time is spent on how, as a teenager and young man, he was recruited and was part of the Manhattan Project, but it is presented jarringly out of chronological order, and the film not only seems to dance around why he chose to work in music production rather than finishing his degree at Colombia, but never quite seems to make the connection about how he was uniquely qualified to innovate, with his combined musical and technical backgrounds.

Indeed, the film all too often seems content to leave the Dowd's thought process mysterious, just showing him as a likable old raconteur, despite the evidence that he's a very smart guy. There's a lot of focus on how great what Dowd did was, but little on how he did it, or what his thought processes were. He discusses how Atlantic was ahead of the game because they'd been recording in stereo well in advance of stereo sound being a consumer product, or how Atlantic bought the second eight-track recording machine produced, but not how those decisions to use expensive new technology without immediate application were made.

The movie's not entirely frustrating - the Tom Dowd in this movie is charismatic, and there are interesting facts learned and stories told about the music business from the forties to the seventies (albeit with gaps). It's a talking-head documentary, but director Mark Moorman shoots it well enough for it to feel dynamic, and it will be right at home on PBS or Discovery or wherever it eventually lands. I just can't help but notice how superficial it seemed at times.

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