Review: America’s Musical Journey, IMAX

A film for everyone, narrated by Morgan Freeman.
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America’s Musical Journey showing at IMAX.

You can’t cover the breadth of American music in three quarters of an hour, so this film directed by Greg MacGillivray sensibly doesn’t try. America’s Musical Journey, presented in IMAX 2D, takes us to the past, on a superficial blandly entertaining musical road trip round the USA with Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc. Blacc demonstrates, through collaborating with a few musicians on one of his own songs, how music from the past informs the present. We get too much of Blacc’s shiny nuclear family life for my liking; who cares how he met his wife? And therin lies one problem with the film: its underlying cultural aesthetic. In tune, for sure, but it belts out loud ‘mainstream!’

America’s Musical Journey relates the impact on US (and the world’s) music of blues, roots, gospel morphing into jazz at the hands of Louis Armstrong and then into the seed of rock’n’roll at the hands of Elvis Presley. We’re reminded of how powerful these two artists were, how they each single-handedly changed the world of music. Given how music shapes culture, or rather, how music is culture, there’s no underestimating the importance of the diverse influences we learn about here. 

The story focusses on three musical legends, namely Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, and the thankfully still living Gloria Estefan.  As well, along the way Blacc visits banjo wunderkid Willow Osborne, only 17 at the time of filming, and shares moments with Jon Batiste, bandleader and musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, New Orleans music hero Dr. John, Chicago jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, Memphis jookin dance star Lil Buck, the Detroit Youth Choir, Chicago footwork maestros Pause Eddie and Donnetta ‘Lil Bit’ Jackson, the Bandaloop vertical dancers, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, the Beale Street Flippers, Maya Jupiter and skydiving Elvis impersonators, among others.

America’s Musical Journey misses many opportunities to fit in appearances or at least mentions, of more of the greats. The film could have done with less footage of dance, I reckon: valuable screen time was wasted on going back to shots of aerial Elvises, salsa and hiphop dancers when we’d already seen them. To present a show about US music with not even a glimpse of Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, or Aretha Franklin for instance, nor any mention of the Broadway musical, is simply weird.

As a work of armchair travel, America’s Musical Journey is a stellar ride, exploring great musical cities from New Orleans, Miami, Chicago, NYC to Nashville. There are superb shots of the Mississippi Delta from the deck of a paddleboat and exciting drone visuals of skylines and cityscapes. The film’s meant to be a musical journey but more often than not feels like a sell for US tourism. Morgan Freeman narrates a voice-over dragged in schmaltz with repeated references to the ‘creative freedom’ of the US; half the time the narration sounds like a PR exercise for America the Land of the Free. Crowd-pleasing and syrupy as it is, especially when bringing the past to life, this film will be fun and engaging for the type of people who go on ocean cruises. Take someone who’s retired and planning their first trip to the States. Just don’t expect depth.

3 stars ★★★
America’s Musical Journey

Director: Greg MacGillivray
Stars: Jonathan Batiste, Aloe Blacc, Lil Buck

Liza Dezfouli
About the Author
Liza Dezfouli reviews live performance, film, books, and occasionally music. She writes about feminism and mandatory amato-heteronormativity on her blog WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She can occasionally be seen in short films and on stage with the unHOWsed collective. She also performs comedy, poetry, and spoken word when she feels like it.
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