‘Musicwood’ Review

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“Forests are not quiet,” says Tom Abel, a member of the Haida Tribe who is the first to speak in Musicwood. He’s right in the most traditional sense, of course. The ecosystem of the Tongass National Forest is a busy one, even if there wouldn’t normally be the crashing of timber or the shouts of protesters. A forest has a life of its own, full of creaking flora and chattering fauna. Yet now things are as noisier than ever before.

Director Maxine Trump is up to the challenge of representing the complicated, busy landscape of competing interests currently whipping up feelings along the coast of southeastern Alaska. All the while there’s the undercurrent of strumming, the sound of artists caught up in a struggle they may not even have known about. Steve Earle, The Antlers, Kaki King, Yo La Tengo and others contribute their music and their perspectives to a film overflowing with diversity of opinion.

If this already sounds confusing, don’t worry. The greatest strength of the film is Trump’s knack for storytelling, impressive for a debut feature. She begins with Greenpeace, which has gone to Alaska to protest the “clear-cut” logging of the Sealaska Corporation in the region of the Tongass. Clear-cutting is the act of chopping down every single tree in an area, leaving nothing but stumps as far as the eye can see. Greenpeace has brought a ship, painted rainbow and covered in slogans, but this obviously won’t be enough. And so they research the industry, trying to discern where all of the wood is going and who profits. They make an interesting discovery: guitars.

From there, we’re off and running. In a span of 80 minutes, Trump weaves a complicated narrative of environmental conservation, industrial interest and communication across economic and cultural lines. It’s somewhere between If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, that Willie Nelson ad for Chipotle and Frank Norris’s turn-of-the-century muckraking novels in terms of its heart and commitment to journalism.

The gist is as follows: a small percentage of the Sitka Spruce cut by Sealaska ends up in the hands of guitar manufacturers, who need it to make their instruments. If deforestation continues at the current speed, there will be no more Sitka Spruce in a matter of a few years, which would be terrible news for industry leaders like Taylor, Martin and Gibson. And so Greenpeace begins a negotiation between the guitar makers and Sealaska to try and discourage wide clear-cutting and apply for Forest Stewardship Council certification.

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All of this is complicated by Sealaska’s identity. It is the largest of the corporations set up back in the early 1970s by the federal government to settle native Alaskan land claims. While officially a corporation, it is also the central organization of the native Alaskan community in the region. The leaders of the corporation, who have both a financial interest in maintaining the clear-cutting technique and a cultural interest in resisting the imposition of outside environmentalists, aren’t likely to see eye to eye with either Greenpeace or the guitar makers. And then there are their shareholders, men and women like Tom Abel eking out a living on salmon and suspicious of the corporation’s executives who have prioritized short-term logging profits over setting up a sustainable local economy.

Trump talks to all of these people. Usually in environmental and political films like this at least one side of the fight sits out, refusing to be interviewed. Not so in Musicwood. The shareholders and the executives each get a voice, along with the CEOs of the guitar companies, the environmentalist leadership, and even the non-native contractors working with Sealaska to cut down the forests. The film’s opening spotlight on Abel and its reliance on Greenpeace to structure the narrative does betray a bias. Yet the environmental organization’s project leader doesn’t exactly come across like a hero, and there is no effort to turn anyone into a villain. This isn’t balance for the sake of politics, but for the sake of depth.

And, finally, the musicians. The testimony of these talented, tangentially involved celebrities is wisely kept light. This could very easily have become a film about the “magic of the guitar” and the appeal of nature, at the expense of the narrative. Instead, Trump understands how to use them to create context rather than distraction. If anything they serve as a way in to the narrative for the audience, recognizable figures whose art will be affected by this environmental crisis and who will then, in turn, impact our lives as listeners. And, of course, their testimonies are accompanied by soundtrack contributions that make Musicwood not only a riveting political/industrial narrative but quite the smooth ride as well.

Musicwood opens Friday at the Quad Cinema in New York City and will also be available on iTunes the same day.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.