"Recording History." Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities & Sciences,1998, 28-minute VHS tape. Part of the eight-volume videocassette series The Story of Film, Tt ; and Media $129 per volume; rental $75.Web site: www.films.com.
With the dawn of a new century upon us, an examination of our history offers a foundation on which future generations can inquire, reflect, and learn. Media history, as the "Recording History" documentary effectively shows, conveys the critical notion that technology and innovation can merge with artistry to depict both relevant and controversial aspects of life. Moreover, "Recording History" presents a capsulated glimpse at a medium which helped break down social and cultural barriers in American society.
The program is part of an extensive eight-part series which examines the integral history of the mass media by revealing the contributions made by key people and innovations. Beginning with the creation of the phonograph and ending with the international impact of American music as cultural commerce, this documentary provides an excellent review of the recording industry which can serve as a useful supplement to classroom discussion.
"Recording History" follows a chronological format filled with a wonderful crafting of period still images, motion-film excerpts, expert analysis, informative narration and fascinating examples of music from various genres. The interviews, which feature executives from the BMI archives and Capitol-EMI Music along with historians from the Smithsonian Institution and various universities, are particularly important because they describe the ascent of affordable, mass-produced music in the twentieth century.
"Recording History" is divided into four themes which contain historical aspects: Capturing the Essence of Music, Cross-Fertilization, Colorful Music, and Cultural Phenomena. The first theme traces the development of music from an active medium to a passive one. This theme interprets the impact that technology holds upon entertainment and artistry by showing the gradual departure from the composerdominated origins of music. The composer sold sheet music to an elite, and narrow, audience for participatory purposes, such as a family playing and singing music around a piano.
However, technology both popularized and distanced the audience as Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph and Emile Berliner's creation of the flat disk record transformed music into a performer's domain. In this new approach, consumers no longer performed music; rather, they changed into audience who passively listened. From this point on, the performer dictated topic and genre.
A second theme delves into the parallels between black music, such as Jazz, and white rural music, often called Hillbilly, throughout the Twenties and Thirties. These styles set the stage for the third theme which details the great cultural explosion fueled by music in postWorld War II America. This experience inevitably Leads to a shift in entertainment and social values that results in Fifties' Rock-n-Roll and the music of the counterculture. The schism between adults and teenagers is accurately illustrated in the Cultural Phenomena theme as it clearly shows the historical roots of the movement--economics, integration and ideology.
One criticism of this documentary is its lack of explanation regarding the past thirty years. As an historical entity, this program needs to show important musical genres, such as Hip Hop and Alternative, and the technological breakthroughs of music videos, CDs and the Internet. Clearly, 28 minutes is not enough time to tell the rich and ample story of the recording industry.
David Marc McCoy Kent State University
An Author's Response Dear Editor:
Just received a copy of your recent review of my book Stopping the Presses: the Murder of Walter W. Liggett (University of Minnesota Press, 1998). …