The Watcher - Better living through music

Documentary series gets to the root of things

If film genres were dates, documentaries would be the nerds nobody takes to the prom. They may exude intelligence or sophistication, but really, who wants to be caught checking out Baraka at Blockbuster?

Music documentaries, however, enjoy an inherent insider coolness. Owning a sprawling 29-episode Ken Burns "Jazz" collection becomes a badge of honor rather than a sign that you have way too much time to burn.

Luckily not all music documentaries require such dedication. "Keeping Time: New Music From America's Roots," the new series from the Sundance Channel, proves that behind-the-music shows need not last longer than most musical careers.

The first episode, "Pickin' My Religion," airing Aug. 7 at 7:30 p.m., begins with a montage of religious revelry, from black gospel holy rollers to subdued Hassidic gatherings. A Native American chant connects the scenes, demonstrating the commonality of all religious behavior, a theme repeated throughout the episode.

The half-hour documentary profiles four groups of spiritual musicians from distinct backgrounds, including a Jewish clarinetist, a steel-guitarist and Native American vocal trio Ulali.

But the most fascinating personality featured is Gillian Welch. The traditional gospel singer and O Brother Where Art Thou? alum details her own history with sacred music, which she compares to love poetry. Welch's concerts gracefully revive traditional bluegrass and Appalachian hymns for an alt-country market.

The question of how to keep traditional music alive drives the second episode, "Acoustic Innovators" (airing Aug. 14). It centers on Grammy-winning Nickel Creek, a young trio that attempts to learn from the masters and also introduce its own genre-defying flavor to the material. They deftly blend Stanley Brothers-inspired roots with modern influences — like Nirvana.

Lead singer Sean Watkins, who grins with enough teeth to fill two mouths, begins to grate on the nerves by the show's end, but "Acoustic Innovators" shines when the band takes the stage. Nickel Creek's performances often border on brilliant.

The four-part "Keeping Time" series goes on to explore the struggles of independent record labels (Aug. 21) and the art of songwriting (Aug. 28). But if the first two entries are any indicator, this is one music series that should keep on keeping on.

Nerdy or not, the long-running "POV" documentary series — now in its 16th year — continues to make public television a destination. Music and dance play a key role in the episode "American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawaii," which airs Aug. 5 at 11 p.m. on PBA 30.

The film dispels the myths of the hula dance at the outset, with a disgruntled dancer's complaint that she's tired of people asking to see her grass skirt and coconut bra. The ritualistic dance actually incorporates neither item, though vintage Hollywood footage reveals how the myth of the hula girl became an American icon.

Filmmakers Lisette Marie Flanary and Evann Siebens use the dance as an entry point for a story on how tradition keeps a culture together. They follow hula dancers in California, and we're told that more native Hawaiians now live on the U.S. mainland than on the islands themselves, due to the high cost of living there. Shots of muscle-bound men and colorfully dressed women practicing the sensual dance take on a certain irony when cast against the backdrop of used-car lots and interstate on-ramps. It's a none-too-subtle statement about a culture's fight to survive in a sea of sameness.

Though "American Aloha" enlightens, and its dancing can be a joy, the documentary wears out its welcome quickly. "Aloha," after all, can mean hello as well as goodbye.


The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.