Broken Circle Breakdown: An Enchanting Bluegrass Music Love Story


By Art Menius 4-27-2014Image

Following its nomination for Best Foreign Film in this year’s Oscars, Felix van Groeningen’s 2012 film from Belgium, Broken Circle Breakdown can now be viewed on iTune, Amazon Prime, and similar paid services as well as limited theatrical release in art houses and performing arts centers via Tribeca Films. His fourth feature, Broken Circle Breakdown previously found box office and critical success in the low countries, leading to two wins at the Tribeca Film Festival last year.

See trailers: http://bcove.me/0ici1bfo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3a50DJkCxqw
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Three currents run through this cinematographic lonesome river. First, Broken Circle Breakdown provides a compelling and quite believable exploration of Europeans obsessed with an American cultural form and the universal experience of falling in love with a particular genre of music. Didier not only picks banjo, but farms, drives a pick up, and wears a cowboy hat. He owns a horse named “Earl” for Scruggs. Elise runs a tattoo parlor and sings with a sultry soulfulness shaped by Alison and Rhonda.

A torrid love story provides the second theme. The sex scenes prove way hotter than in High Lonesome and infinitely more pleasant, if not exactly safe, than DeliveranceBroken Circle Breakdown, moving backwards and forwards in time from first meeting until final goodbye, traces the entire arc of their time together. Their fights, flirtations, and lovemaking ring true consistently. The screen play presented the story consecutively with the time jumping a product of creative storytelling through editing.

Third, and somewhat less pleasingly, the cloying and familiar tale of a sweet child dying at age six because, Didier believes, President G.W. Bush cut back stem cell research. As you can see, the marketing materials don’t put this storyline front and center.

Flemish vocalist and TV star Veerle Baetens plays the then tortured Elise, whose third suicide attempt after the child’s death sadly proves the charm. Five string man Didier, played by Johan Heldenbergh, committed career suicide shortly before by launching into an emotional and rambling diatribe against God between songs at a bluegrass gospel concert with all the band dressed in white suits. Heldenbergh, who appeared in two of van Groeningen’s three previous films, created the 2009 stage play “The Broken Circle Breakdown.” He learned how to play the banjo, guitar, and mandolin for the role as Didier. For the movie, he sings with the Broken ImageCircle Breakdown Band, but you only see his five-string picking while hearing Hank Van Damme (Karl Eriksson) play.

The film gets so many details right. Two minutes into his first conversation with Elise, he is talking about Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. The image of Elise’s face lighting up at the precise moment where she realizes “this is my music” is absolutely perfect. She eventually takes the stage name of Alabama Monroe. Before they make love for the first time, he happily explains why Manzanita is his favorite album. “Tony Rice had such a sweet voice,” he tells Elise, “and then he lost it. What a shame!”

Van Groeningen explained that:

Didier and Elise play in a bluegrass band and that is no accident. Bluegrass is integrated in a variety of ways into the story and forms the intrinsic link between all the main issues that appear in the film: life, death, birth, America, motherhood and fatherhood, finding consolation, life after death,… Music is also what unites the couple…. Sometime a song is purely narrative and helps to tell the story or is even used as an ellipsis. In other places, we select a given song
because it underpins the emotions…. Bjorn Eriksson composed the [new] bluegrass songs and also created the score. Meeting Bjorn was very important for the film, in lots of ways. You have to know that a lot of bluegrass musicians have something nerdy, but that is not how I saw Didier and Elise. Bjorn has been a bluegrass aficionado since he was 16. But he’s also a very cool guy, and so meeting him, influenced not only the sound but also the look of the film. Bjorn conducted the recordings and guided Johan and Veerle’s performances to the max (they sing everything themselves). Bjorn himself plays dobro and guitar.

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Falling in love with a banjo player inevitably leads to getting knocked up and no sooner does Elise start singing with the band than she learns she is 13 weeks pregnant. They name their daughter for Maybelle Carter, but cancer claims her much younger. While Maybelle suffers bravely throughly endless treatments and doctors “who won’t give up,” the band grows steadily more successful – moving from bars to concert halls, dressing sharply, and delivering convincing covers of well known titles from “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Over In The Gloryland,” and “Rueben’s Train” to “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” via Gillian Welch, “If I Needed You” from Townes Van Zandt, and Lyle Lovett’s “Cowboy Man.”

The Broken Circle Breakdown (BCB) Band now tours with increasing frequency in Europe with more than a dozen dates listed for May 2014 alone. The soundtrack from the movie spent eleven weeks at the top of the Flemish Ultratop 50 while going Flemish Platinum and hit number 35 on the Dutch album chart.

“Four stars! One of the finest final scenes in a movie this year… if there were any justice, Veerle Baetens would break out as an international star.” – New York Daily News

 

“Belgium’s submission for the 2014 foreign language film Oscar is a powerful and haunting tale of love, death and bluegrass — a mournful song played on a broken instrument, with striking visual accompaniment.” – The Observer

 

Awards:

  • Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Tribeca Film Festival (2013)
  • Best Actress, European Film Awards (Berlin 2013)
  • Best European Film, Panorama Audience Award, Berlin International Film Festival (2013)
  • Best Film, Best Actress, Best Director, Ensor Awards of Flemish Cinema (2013)
  • Nominated for Best Foreign Film, 2014 Academy Awards
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Why I Left The Folk Alliance Board


By Art Menius

On March 27, 2014, I resigned from the board of directors of Folk Alliance International, the organization I had helped found in 1989. The following is an edited and revised version of the formal letter of resignation that I sent to the board.

I considered seriously going quietly into pasture a second time, as I did in 1996. Speaking out on my own could sound like so much grousing from an old curmudgeon. If nothing else, however, to voice these views forces their discussion, places the ideas into the marketplace.

How does one say goodbye to twenty-five years of one’s life, to separate from an organization that once embodied my core mission? I came to this dire decision in November 2013 when I realized I had no desire whatsoever to go to the first Kansas City conference. One option was not on the table. Neither I, nor anyone of good conscience, can in good faith remain on any non-profit board of directors when one cannot support the direction toward which the majority wants to steer. That is the difference between government service and a non-profit board. The latter runs on consensus; it is wrong to hang on when running against the flow.Image

I come from a Folk Alliance where Marta Moreno Vega of the Network of Cultural Centers of Color is the speaker not Al Gore, making millions off a faux-progressive platform. No one who has ever supported censorship of song lyrics is a friend of folk music, no matter how well rooted his family traditions. You can, thus, hear Al Gore Sr. play “Soldiers Joy” at the 1938 National Folk Festival here: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/afc/afccc/soldiersjoy/gore.mp3

I had been attempting to write this letter for three months without progress until I read an editorial in the March 2 Chapel Hill News http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2014/02/28/3655641/linda-haac-tale-of-two-towns.html. The background is that I work and serve on town commissions in Carrboro, one of the most left leaning towns in the southeast. While Chapel Hill has fallen under the sway of developers and retirees desiring lower taxes, Carrboro sticks with small, locally owned, locally sourced, organic, walk-bike-free bus, no big box retailers, no structure more than five stories, & etc. Linda Haac wrote:

It’s true nothing stays the same, change is always in the air and “so-called progress” needs to be made, but there are ways of doing things and ways ending in generic, often unpleasant results. Carrboro appears to be honoring our past as it moves forward, keeping true to our identity and soul, while Chapel Hill appears on a different track.

This contrast between two adjoining towns similar in so, so many ways (even gay mayors) frames the issues I have with FAI to a large degree. Growth and change will happen, but do we stay true to our core values in the process or adapt to mainstream fashions. I believe Folk Alliance, like Chapel Hill, has chosen the latter course, conflating what is best for business with what is best for the larger community.

Folk music is a business, but it is not just any business. Whether klezmer, Cajun, or bluegrass, community comes first and communities are based in shared values.

In recent years, Folk Alliance International has built on an earned income chassis and operated with earned income assumptions, rather than thinking like a non-profit charity. FAI reduces itself to the transactional pay for membership and a conference, rather than raising donated funds to change the world for the better by educating the general public about folk music and its traditions. That changes our mission into making money to stay in or grow the business instead of making the world a better place. Organizations under section 501(c)3 exist to do what the marketplace cannot support.

That process further pushes the FAI membership into the meaningless and ephemeral world of entertainment. Rather than a community annealed by shared traditions, purpose, and, yes, values, our artist members just become entertainers trying to advance their careers to the next level, a level that makes Folk Alliance irrelevant to them.

Do values matter to the Folk Alliance International? I always held they were essential. I know firsthand that values led Clark and Elaine Weissman to call us together at Camp Hess Kramer in January 1989. As Bush replaced Reagan and the culture wars annealed our community in a way that may not have existed since the 1940s. Even the agents and commercial media reps who attended saw folk music as part of the larger non-profit arts world, not the commercial music industry. We wanted to live and work our whole lives in the folk music community, not use folk music as a means to somewhere else.

Under US IRS Tax Code, Folk Alliance was created as a 501(c)3 educational non-profit, not a 501(c)6 business league. Many in our community may feel the need for a 501(c)6 business league or trade association along the lines of IBMA, CMA, or AMA. I have no objection to that, but that has to be a new 501(c)6 and not a pre-existing 501(c)3 educational charity. We did not try take over CDSS (the Country Dance & Song Society which remains larger than FAI), but created a new organization focused on our needs and shaped by our values.

To paraphrase “House of Cards:” “The nature of non-profit missions is that they are immune to changing circumstances.” Our community needs an organization that is for, by, and about the folk music community in Canada and the USA, that unites and advocates for the non-profit folk arts presenting world, protects government funding for the folk arts at federal and provincial/state level, educates about and celebrates our traditions, connects us to the academic and public folklore sectors, and places folk arts within grassroots community arts.

That is why we formed this organization 25 years ago. That is why a couple of dozen of us invested vast amounts of time and money to make Folk Alliance a reality. These are tasks that neither a for-profit business nor a 501(c)6 trade association are not designed to do. Nor are they short term goals that can be changed over time to suit membership recruitment goals. In those configurations, where business and trade dominate, principles are devalued. Decisions that should be made in the best interests of the long term good of the folk community are made for what is good for the Folk Alliance as a business.

Aware in January 1989 both of the appropriateness of meeting at a Jewish summer camp and the irony of convening across the PCH from the fabled beaches of Malibu (while ignorant that The Band had rehearsed there), we discussed and reaffirmed our values. One hundred twenty of us made a group commitment to the folk music community in Canada and the USA.

Values do matter. Values are long term, like art. Our values shape our community. Values sustain organizations and given meaning to their work. Today is the time when our voices are needed more than ever within folk music and without. As one of the people that Elaine and Clark Weissman recruited to support this effort, as one of 120 at Malibu in 1989, as a member of the Steering Committee, as our first president and first employee of Folk Alliance, I believe these are our values:

  • We are the music of both of authentic communities and cultures and of the left in North America.
  • We stand on the shoulders of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Hedy West, Jean Carignan, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sarah Ogun Gunning.
  • We offer an alternative to mainstream, corporate culture
  • We believe in non-profit organizations as the primary means to organize our community
  • We are committed to building audiences through grassroots communities
  • We believe in government and foundation funding for arts, arts education, and arts in education
  • We believe in our folk traditions
  • We believe in an equal Canadian-American partnership within Folk Alliance, acting as if population and membership numbers were equal.
  • We appeal to the best collective notions – embodied by singing together – not base self-interest
  • We need one strong voice to advocate for folk music and dance in Canada and the USA
  • We understand that not all singer-songwriters nor all acoustic music is folk.

Folk Alliance International has morphed in recent years into the antithesis of much of we wanted to create back then. While still a fun gathering of the tribes, the conference no longer affirms the essential values of the folk music community in North America. Without values to guide us, we become just a trade association, not a 501(c)3 charity. When the voices expressing those values are marginalized and consigned to the dustbin of history rather than celebrated as the foundation of our community, FAI has gone astray.

Where have we strayed from the course?

  • We are more about advancing individual careers than serving the folk music community.
  • Trying to build the audience for FAI more than building the audience for folk music through strong grassroots communities, organizations, and businesses. This suggests conflating FAI with the folk music community.
  • Yet I have become convinced that FAI uses a pay to play business model that exploits the hopes and dreams of musicians rather than advancing our field. It is true that every year, the Folk Alliance International conference jumpstarts the careers of any number of artists. On the other hand, far greater numbers invest their time and money chasing the dream in private showcase after private showcase. Are we any better footed morally than the showcase clubs in Nashville and LA? Some people call the conference a festival, and it does feel like one at night. We were created to serve the field of non-profit folk music presenters, neither to compete with our members as an event nor to use artists as an income stream.
  • Turning to an outside search firm for the next ED tells me that we are adopting and modeling as “professionalism” the worst values of mainstream American corporate capitalism – not the traditional folk community values.
  • The sheer hubris of talking about international expansion when so much work remains to be done in the USA and Canada
  • Behaving as if we were a 501(c)6 trade association – depending on dues and conference revenue – rather than a 501(c)3 charity whose impact, growth, and effectiveness are funded through donations and grants. Increasing revenue for the organization thereby becomes more important than serving the greater folk music community or, for a trade association, business.
  • Failing to serve effectively as one strong advocacy voice for the folk community with private and government funders and policy makers at all levels

Those are the key points. That which was created to serve community, now works for individual goals. Careerism has displaced values.

After The Race: Book Review


After the Race
 
After the Race by Michael B. Jones
Reviewed on amazon.com by Art Menius
   

5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect combination of page turner and serious literature, April 20, 2014
This review is from: After the Race (Kindle Edition)
In a stunning debut novel, Michael B. Jones manages to marry a gripping psychological adventure to a serious exploration of human emotion and America during the Reagan and elder Bush years. In watching the decline of his alcoholic, sociopath ex-Marine father Wayne, Charles Reed witnesses the moral decline of America from 1986 to 1993. Jones thus delivers a meditation on the effect of growing up during the “greed is good” era as much as on dysfunctional families and alcohol and painkiller abuse.

The reader knows that Wayne and Charles on are a hellbound train before you get through the first two short chapters, but finding out how it plays out and, more importantly, why become as consuming as Wayne’s cravings for alcohol. Jones writes crisply with exceptional insight into and empathy for the failed workings of Wayne’s mind.

Comparisons to The Great Santani prove easy, but After the Race is a different book with a far more entertaining narrative and a young man as morally complex and confused as Holden Caulfield.