Bill Morrison has a knack for the illuminated séance, fashioning lustrous meditations like 2002’s Decasia (recently added to the National Film Registry) from ancient, decaying celluloid and newly commissioned music. With The Great Flood, Morrison focuses on the Mississippi River deluge of 1926–27, which caused widespread devastation but also jump-started the birth of electric blues and rock & roll by sending black Southern migrant workers to Chicago and other Northern cities.
Fittingly, Morrison taps Bill Frisell, an ingenious jazz guitarist and composer known for bluesy rusticity and emotional directness, to score his migratory chronicle. Slow, steady-gaited music perfectly paces early images of sharecroppers at work. When Morrison’s footage pans slowly across scratchy, decaying vistas of waterlogged fields and towns, Frisell and trumpeter Ron Miles cry and howl in aching concord.
The flood images are stark, conveying all the terror and pity that modern disaster footage imparts. But Morrison and Frisell infuse the film with warmth and, where appropriate, a touch of wit, causing its subject to breathe anew.
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