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  • The 78 Project Movie by Alex Steyermark
  • Thomas Grant Richardson
The 78 Project Movie. 2014. By Alex Steyermark. 95 min. DVD, Blu-ray format, color. (Lavinia Jones Wright and Alex Steyermark.)

The 78 Project Movie is the brainchild of Director/Producer Alex Steyermark and Producer/Recordist Lavinia Jones Wright. The film opens with their plan:

We asked musicians/to cut a 78 record/of an old song/using one microphone/one blank lacquered disk/and one 1930s PRESTO disk recorder . . .

Anywhere they chose . . .

In one take.

The dramatic spacing of the opening titles gives clues to the fact that the filmmakers are deeply under the spell of the concept of single takes, no overdubs or multi-tracks, and the aura of the sounds of vintage recordings. The majority of the film is dedicated to recording musicians with their instant record and playback PRESTO machine. The film does, however, provide more than footage of musicians recording and listening to playback.

The 78 Project Movie is built like a meandering travelogue of Steyermark and Wright traveling with their machine across America to record folk music without the trappings of studios. They record a number of different musicians [End Page 240] playing traditional songs, but they also flesh out the field recording process by interviewing machinists and archivists, who have just as much to say (and often more articulately) about field recording as performers do.

The musicians are largely up- and-coming professionals, many of whom have small followings, with a few exceptions of established musicians (John Doe, Victoria Williams) and even one established Hollywood actor (John C. Reilly). There are examples from Maryland, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the two big music cities of Tennessee—Nashville and Memphis—but most of the recording sessions come from California, with several tracks being recorded in and around the center of American pop music, Los Angeles.

Recording locations are reported to be “anywhere [the musician] chooses,” including the usual suspects of front rooms, churches, porches, and kitchens, but also some more cinematic-friendly locations like gardens, stairwells, and well-decorated bars. The style of traditional music is overwhelmingly acoustic guitar-led folk songs, although there are examples of Cajun music, gospel blues, and an impressive arrangement for spoons by Latin percussionist Coati Mundi.

The most musically and cinematically satisfying performance of the film comes from Louis Michot of the Lost Bayou Ramblers with his wife Ashlee and accordion player Corey Ledet. They play “Trappe Mon Chapeau” in the Michot home in Arnaudville, Louisiana. Not only does the scene showcase a warm and lived-in home where music is easily made at the kitchen table, but it also includes one of the more interesting interview clips of Michot discussing the song, the fiddle part, and his feelings toward Cajun music. Michot doesn’t speak in generalities or platitudes like other musicians in the film, but allows the audience legitimate insight into his thoughts on Cajun music.

The second set of subjects in the film includes the archivists and machinists involved in the larger concept of disc recording and preservation. For the machinists, we are given a glimpse into the history of the PRESTO recorder by Alan Graves, referred to as a “Presto Historian,” and more sentimental recollections from Bob Saliba, son of George Saliba, the inventor of the PRESTO machine. Saliba recalls stories of his father and reminisces over recordings of his eighth birthday. Graves provides interesting comments about machine factories in the early twentieth century and how, due to these machines essentially being hand-built, there are slight size and compatibility issues that hamper the easy swapping and replacing of PRESTO parts from other machines. We get more obscure detail from Richard Matthews, a tube supplier and expert, whose contributions are either aimed at a highly niche audience or serve to show an underlying complexity to analog recordings. For example, he explains: “This tube is actually a triode, which is a three-element vacuum tube that is combined with a pair of diodes. Here it’s being used as a voltage amplifier in your Presto. Then you’ve got a 6 and 7 which is a dual-triode which can be used as a class...


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pp. 240-242
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