Bluegrass in Brussels?

Posted: November 26, 2013 by Jollymore in On Films

The Broken Circle Breakdown Band was the reason we went to the film of the same name. Howard is a Bluegrass fan, and the reviews were good. However, if you are going only for the music, you would be better off listening to Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley recordings.

No, the music is good. No, again. The music is wonderful, but it comes at a cost, an emotional cost. That is why this film could not be made in America or by Americans even though the music is obviously American.  Here is the way I see it:

I told Howard not to expect much in the way of Bluegrass.  After all, Europeans though their technical skill in other American styles, Blues and in Jazz, had never impressed me as, let us say, “authentic,” they get the notes right – and whew, can they play them fast – but the feeling of Blues and Jazz seems lost somewhere along with the translation.  So, don’t expect to hear the magic of Bluegrass. Was I right, Howard?

Yes, I was. The speed of the music and its emotional timbre were all anti-American, non-Bluegrass interpretation. But I was wrong. It was better than Bluegrass for just the same reasons. The precision and speed may have been missing, but love, joy and, plenty of sorrow are expressed in a way Monroe or Stanley would or, perhaps, could lay them out there. The BCB Band was tight – they wore white and pressed together, it seemed, around a single microphone at times. But they performed a wild and comic The Lion Sleeps Tonight as a coming home present and a death bed dirge, Where the Soul of a Man Never Dies, more lonesome than the prairie. Both were far from the stiff bandstand personae of the “normal” Bluegrass musicians. Likewise the Wayfaring Stranger and If I Needed You, sung by the lead actors, carried those feelings we have never heard so truly conveyed in the lickety-split rush of a tight American Bluegrass band.  Maybe transplanting Bluegrass and reinterpreting it brings new life to the music. Certainly, Veerle Baetens brought what was missing not just to the BCB Band but to Bluegrass itself.

The film? It could not have been made here. The story is famously told in a mixed fashion, flash backs and flash forwards. You know what “happens” early on. Then, like the characters themselves, including the ensemble too, you suffer through the rest of the film.  It is not a tear jerker – that would be the American, Spielberg, way – it is a “sufferer.” The story becomes not the sad, wasting death of a child, it is what happens afterward. The question comes to mind immediately: “How can one suffer the death of a child?” I’ll let the film answer that question, not because I am not a spoiler but because the movie provides a much fuller answer than I can.

Film: The Broken Circle Breakdown. Director: Felix Van Groeningen  Leads: Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens

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