Sometimes it seems that inside every successful filmmaker there’s an embryonic rock star -- Johnny Depp, David Lynch and producer Thomas Tull (who was behind “It Might Get Loud”) are among Hollywood’s bigger guitar freaks and unlike a lot of guitar freaks elsewhere they can actually afford the merchandise.
What guitar freaks often buy are Martins, Gibsons and Taylors, probably the best mass-produced acoustic guitars in America and whose makers are at the center of “Musicwood,” a new doc by Maxine Trump that opens in New York on Nov. 1 (and rolls out further thereafter).
As explained in the film by Chris Martin -- great-great-great-grandson of Christian Frederick Martin, the German immigrant who started the Nazareth, PA-based Martin Guitar Co. in 1833 -- certain woods were long ago determined to be the best for acoustic guitars: Brazilian rosewood (now endangered and forbidden) for the back and sides; African ebony (rare) for the fingerboards; Sitka spruce for the top, or face. That only 150 Sitka spruce trees are use every year by the guitar industry seems like a drop in the bucket, especially when one looks -- as Trump does -- at some of the vast expanses of southeast Alaskan forest, home to the Sitka spruce.
But here's a clever way into a story that resonates far beyond Martin, or Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars or Dave Berryman of Gibson, all of whom become embroiled in a tale that’s more environmental and political than it is musical. It’s a sexy way to get people into a movie that’s about the destruction of old-growth forests, Native-American rights, corporatized rape of the landscape and the more minor threat (to music) that forced a change to guitar construction portends. It’s even -- dare we say it? -- a little sneaky. The director agrees.
“You hit the nail on the head,” said Trump. “We didn’t just want to make another environmental film and it’s important to us that it’s not just seen as a guitar film.”
The issue at hand involves the Tongass National Forest -- the nation’s largest at 17 million acres -- parts of which were ceded back to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes who, under a corporation called Sealaska, has been clear cutting some of the most valuable old-growth forests in Alaska.
“They don’t own it all but they unfortunately own the best,” Trump said of the Native people in the film, who though entitled by law to do what they want with the land have taken a seemingly short-sighted and certainly nonsustainable approach to their forests. It’s hard to argue with people who’ve had their land stolen; the tribal leaders exhibit a perhaps understandable attitude about outsiders trying to tell them what to do. But this is where the guitar–makers, organized by Greenpeace, come in, trying to convince the Sealaska people to take a more cautious approach and preserve some of the valuable wood. It’s a movie that makes it hard to pick sides. And that’s good, Trump said.
“An audience is engaged more when you have to decide who you like and what point of view you share," she said. “We have viewers wrestling with their usual impressions of Native Americans. I’m a Brit, so talk about your colonial oppression and my white woman guilt, but the crux of the matter is that they have bought into a corporate way of thinking and that’s just the truth: They’re running out of wood because they’ve totally over-logged and that was apparent to everybody. This is their land. And it’s been thoroughly devastated.”