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musicwood documentary film

What makes a Gibson or Martin acoustic guitar a better instrument (and thus more expensive) than a no-name guitar that you could buy for $50?  It’s the wood.  Premium acoustic guitars are made from four types of wood that come from across the world.  For three of the best U.S. guitar makers – Gibson, Martin, and Taylor – the soundboard (i.e., the “top” or front of the guitar) is made from a type of Sitka Spruce from Alaska’ Tongass National Forest via a Native American-owned logging corporation, Sealaska. Until several years ago, as far as the owners of these guitars companies were concerned they would continue to get their spruce from the Tongass National Forest for as long as guitars would be made.

That is, until Greenpeace alerted these three companies to a troubling fact: The hundreds of years old trees that they use for their guitars are being lumbered by Sealaska by clear-cutting the land that they own, which means cutting down every single tree in a given area.  This leaves huge swaths of areas filled with nothing but mud and stumps.  Worse, Sealaska is lumbering at such a rapid rate that the trees that the guitar industry counts on will be virtually decimated in just a few decades.  Even though the guitar industry uses only a tiny fraction of the trees that are cut down – less than 200 a year (the rest are mainly shipped to Asia for pulping and construction), Greenpeace representatives hope that the American guitar makers can help them appeal to Sealaska to become Forest Stewardship Council certified, meaning that their methods are environmentally sustainable.

MUSICWOOD, which is named after the coalition Greenpeace forms with the guitar makers, takes a look at these complex issues that is just as much about the economy as it is about the environment.  Based on stereotype alone (especially if you’re old enough to remember those “Keep America Beautiful” ads with a crying Iron Eyes Cody), one would probably assume Greenpace and Native Americans would be on the same “side” on environmental issues.  However, for the Sealaska Corporation there is no equitable industry in the area, so the entire livelihood of the area depends on logging.  The corporation is concerned that if it scales back its logging it could be economically devastating for an area that already suffers from economic problems. The guitar companies sit as a kind of middle ground, obviously wanting to still use the wood but concerned that over-lumbering will destroy the supply for future generations of musicians. Cut in between are clips of musicians that talk about their connection to their instruments and play a bit, including an absolutely jaw-dropping performance by a guitarist named Kaki King.

This isn’t a documentary that wraps up everything with a bow because these complex factors are further complicated by other environmental and legal issues.  But it certainly does its job of bringing to light an issue that every guitar player should be concerned about.  It’s a well-made documentary from first time feature-length documentary director Maxine Trump that weighs the views of all the sides fairly, at least for the most part (you’d expect it to be hard to have sympathy for loggers who are destroying an entire ecosystem at an alarming rate, but their economic concerns and historical treatment makes their point of view understandable).  At only 80 minutes there is plenty of room to expand with new developments should they happen, and those that feel the documentary is nonetheless too open-ended could find out more on the website provided at the end.

From a technical standpoint, Musicwood would play just as well on television than a movie theater, and perhaps it might be even better on television because the video quality is at points fuzzy.  Actually that’s the biggest shame regarding the documentary because some of the nature shots of the Alaskan wilderness would look even more stunning in HD quality.  When so much of the documentary’s message relies on the beauty of the area, it’s important to make sure that beauty is portrayed as best as possible. But that doesn’t prevent the message from being heard.

Rating: 4 out of 5 : See it …… It’s Very Good

MUSICWOOD opens in NYC on November 1, 2013, at the Quad Cinema. The film will also have limited screenings in markets around the country including Seattle and Chicago (dates/times available here:

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