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50th San Francisco International Film Festival at PFA

Friday, April 27, 2007
8:55 p.m. The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
Rani Singh (U.S., 2006)

Filmmaker, musician, painter, mystic, and string collector—Harry Smith wore many hats during his long, eventful life as a key figure of underground culture through the latter half of the twentieth century. In this jubilant documentary, director Rani Singh hones in on Smith's incalculably influential Anthology of American Folk Music, a remarkable and enduring collection of blues and country classics recorded by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Roscoe Holcolmb, the Carter Family, and the Memphis Jug Band between 1927 and 1934. Smith, an insatiable amateur musicologist, picked up these rare recordings while still in high school, eventually amassing a collection of more than eight thousand "round black ghosts" (in the words of Smith aficionado Greil Marcus) and releasing the best of the bunch on his Anthology in 1959. Singer/songwriter Bob Neuwirth notes that these songs are about "life, death, blood, betrayal, murder, intoxication" and every one of the seven deadly sins. Upon the collection's rerelease in 1997, music tribute impresario Hal Wilner organized a series of concerts featuring some of today's most gifted artists taking a crack at their favorite Anthology tracks. Singh has assembled concert footage, interviews, and archival images into a fittingly celebratory, rockin' doc. Transcendent performances by Beth Orton, DJ Spooky, Sonic Youth, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Lou Reed, Philip Glass, Richard Thompson, Emmylou Harris, Beck, and Nick Cave highlight the proceedings, and just wait until you hear Elvis Costello tear into "The Butcher Boy." The Old, Weird America is a testament to Smith's impeccable taste in music and that music's enduring appeal and relevance. As Marcus says, " The weirdness means the story will always be new."

—Steven Jenkins

• (90 mins)