American Music Documentary: Five Case Studies of Ciné-Ethnomusicology

PDF American Music Documentary: Five Case Studies of Ciné-Ethnomusicology Paperback – April 11, 2022

Book author
  1. Benjamin J. Harbert

Documentary filmmakers have been making films about music for a half-century. American Music Documentary looks at five key films to begin to imagine how we might produce, edit, and watch films from an ethnomusicological point of view. Reconsidering Albert and David Maysles's Gimme Shelter, Jill Godmilow's Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, Shirley Clarke's Ornette: Made in America, D.A. Pennebaker's and Chris Hegedus's Depeche Mode: 101, and Jem Cohen's and Fugazi's Instrument, Harbert lays the foundations for the study and practice of "ciné-ethnomusicology." Interviews with directors and rich analysis from the disciplinary perspectives of film studies and ethnomusicology make this book a critical companion to some of the most celebrated music documentaries of the twentieth century.


“You can’t do research but you can make a documentary film.” This is essentially what I was told by the California Department of Corrections in 2004. I had been trying to gain access to an institution that was notorious for denying access to researchers. And yet, I had a deep curiosity about the contemporary musical practices of prisoners. Prison has an older history as a site of folkloric and ethnomusicological research, and I knew that prisoners were forming bands, securing and maintaining instruments, teaching each other to play, and writing songs. I wondered how their experiences of incarceration and music interrelated, how the experience of creating music behind bars differed from doing so on the outside, and how it fit into the relationships among prisoners and between inmates and the administration. I had been able to address these questions only by entering Soledad Prison (i.e., Soledad Correctional Training Facility) as a visitor. I couldn’t even bring a pen.

In 2003, the prison suffered a round of budget cuts. The department that approved research was hit hard, and when I approached the prison later that year I was told that it was unlikely that anyone could even look at a proposal. They told me I could, however, bring in a camera and make a film, for even as the evaluation of research requests ground to a halt, the media department remained well staffed. And, officially, a documentary film did not count as research. While I was glad I was able to find a way into the prison via my camera, I have come to disagree with their claim that film is not research.

Throughout this book, I hope to argue that filmmaking can be a process of understanding music and that a film can be a way of expressing that understanding. In fact, this practice has existed outside the discipline of ethnomusicology for decades. Documentary filmmakers have developed methods to question, problematize, and present arguments about music and its role in the world. This is the disciplinary territory of ethnomusicologists—those who study music and its relation to the social world. But, as many have pointed out, ethnomusicologists work in print. Film offers different ways of asking questions and thinking critically about music—through framing a shot, making an editing decision on where to cut a shot, placing music in relation to an image, or offering a sense of space and time. Each act of making a film can be part of a filmmaker’s discovery of music. With this understanding, in examining film’s role in ethnomusicological research, it is not enough to simply ask how film is different from print. It’s important to ask how filmmakers have developed their practices of making films about music. I began thinking about these practices when making films myself.

When I was granted permission to bring a camera into the prison, I decided that I should study documentary filmmaking. At Ucla, I found Marina Goldovskaya, a Russian-born cinematographer and director who taught film at the university. Many of her films ask questions about the complexity of life after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Her films are more than just images of real life; the images pointed to important issues in their own carefully constructed ways. Studying with Goldovskaya opened me up to like-minded filmmakers. I was able to meet people like Les Blank, Ross McElwee, and Joe Berlinger. More importantly, I sat through screenings and discussions of films—discussions that seemed strange for someone coming from the world of ethnomusicology. They seemed technical, focusing on narrative, camera pans, and dissolves, for instance. It seemed the equivalent of reading a text and then discussing punctuation, verb tense, and font types—not part of an intellectual conversation.

Over the course of Goldovskaya’s class, I was able to produce a short film on music in a California prison that made it to a few festivals and community screenings. I also worked with her on a qualifying exam on music documentaries for my PhD. Our sustained conversation during this time began to close the gap between ethnomusicology and documentary film. As a result, I became an advocate for making scholarly films about music, further inspired by my Ucla professors Tim Rice and Helen Rees, who later studied with Goldovskaya. Soon ethnomusicology graduate students became fixtures in Goldovskaya’s class, and I took jobs with faculty members, helping them to produce their own films. I edited​
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