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This Ain't No Mouse Music!
Chris Strachwitz is a music obsessive of the first order. After emigrating from Nazi-era Germany to the United States as a young man, he immediately became fascinated with his adopted homeland's unvarnished indigenous music. He doesn't really care for rock or pop -- most of that stuff would fall under his oft-used but fuzzily-defined label of "Mouse Music," which seems to encompass any disposable music with no guts. But give Strachwitz a heartfelt gospel or blues record and he is in heaven. What first started for this music lover as a treasure hunt for obscure regional blues and folk 78rpm records led to him taking trips from California down to the southern U.S. in search of these essentially unknown performers to capture and record new gems. This led to the creation of Strachwitz's now-55-year-old record label, Arhoolie Records (named after a sharecropper's field holler).
The new documentary, This Ain't No Mouse Music!, is a sweet tribute to the charming and sometimes cantankerous Strachwitz. The film posits that the development of Arhoolie Records into a purveyor of all sorts of "roots" music stems mostly from its owner's insatiable curiosity and unquenchable thirst for emotionally revelatory tunes. The directors of the film, Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling, are long-time collaborators of Les Blank's, and as This Ain't No Mouse Music! unspools, it becomes clear that Strachwitz and Blank's lives and careers have been intertwined consistently over the years. Many of the subcultures that are featured in Blank's films (as beautifully collected a few months ago in Criterion's Les Blank: Always For Pleasure box set) were likely scouted out by Strachwitz first, as he sought out new music to highlight. Many personalities that popped up in those films are revisited here, some of them decades after Blank's camera visited them. For that reason, among others, this makes for a worthwhile companion to that Blank box set (in addition to its standalone merits).
The film takes a pretty straightforward but undeniably joyous approach to its subject, showing how Strachwitz's love of one particular kind of music would naturally lead to his discovery of another genre with which he fell in love, and so on. Strachwitz's love of Lightnin' Hopkins's Texas blues leads to him discovering nearby bluesman Mance Lipscomb. His interest in New Orleans jazz leads to his discovery of cajun and zydeco music, which offers him the opportunity to introduce accordionist Clifton Chenier to a wider audience. His love of accordion bleeds over into Mexican conjunto and Norteño music, where he meets Flaco Jimenez, who shortly ends up finding work as a sideman in tons of bands in a dozen genres. It's fascinating to see the way the music clearly impacted Strachwitz and the way that he in turn was able to make an impact on these musical communities by sharing them with the larger musical world. The film ends with Strachwitz still not sated, in search of new strains of Appalachian country music to enjoy and share.
Numerous well-known faces sing Strachwitz's praises, like Bonnie Raitt, Richard Thompson, Taj Mahal, and Ry Cooder. Cooder shares a fun anecdote about hearing conjunto music on the radio for the first time, and excitedly ringing Strachwitz up about his discovery, only to find out that Strachwitz was already deeply embedded in the scene. Another interesting anecdote involves Country Joe McDonald, who did his first recording of "The I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" in Chris Strachwitz's living room. Strachwitz only asked for the publishing rights to the song as payment. When the song became a hit at Woodstock, Strachwitz was flush with enough cash to keep his label going and open up a record store besides. Strachwitz mischievously tells the camera that, after a few decades of royalty payments, he finally relinquished the publishing rights back to McDonald.
The film briefly touches on Strachwitz's personal life -- he mentions never taking the time to start a family -- but the music takes center stage at all times. Whether enjoying an impromptu jam at a barbecue, listening to a newly-washed blues 78, or setting up a live recording of a New Orleans marching band, Strachwitz fills his life to the brim with music. This Ain't No Mouse Music! does a good job of capturing the vitality and energy of that lifestyle, especially in the music-packed, foot-tapping final stretch.
The majority of This Ain't No Mouse Music!'s widescreen 1.78:1 video looks like it was shot in the mid-'00s on prosumer-quality DV cameras, which means that a lot of footage is pretty indistinct. Not much fine detail and certain colorful shots become straight-up smeared-looking. Once you adjust to it, the look is tolerable, but it definitely feels dated, even in the relatively short time that has elapsed between when this material was shot and when it was released.
The Dolby 2.0 stereo audio mix is pretty tame for the most part, although some of the full-band performances make good use of the full sonic range. Everything sounds clean and legible otherwise. No subtitles, but the program offers closed captioning.
(33:58) - A wonderful collection of additional moments, including more anecdotes about finding Southern performers in the '60s, some time spent with Clifton Chenier's son, a bit about Mexican narcocorridos, and some unseen archival footage with bluesman Bukka White.
Many music nerds probably wish they could have the career of Chris Strachwitz, finding unknown music they love and managing to connect it with a larger audience. This Ain't No Mouse Music! shows that Strachwitz can be as fussy as your average record store clerk, but that it all stems from an unmitigated love of the music that touches him. Basically, this is a human-sized documentary for an outsized personality. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.