Review: Acoustic Routes
Documentaries have come to the forefront of cinema in recent years and have often been superior to their fictional counterparts. Grizzly Man, Searching for Sugar Man and The Imposter are all shining examples of this, taking subjects that on face value often seem uninteresting and giving them huge emotional and artistic clout. You can therefore forgive me for thinking that on the back of their success, Acoustic Routes, directed by Jan Leman, would take the same route as these premier examples.
Acoustic Routes first and foremost is not about acoustic music or acoustic guitar, it is about the influential – as the documentary would have us believe – guitarist Bert Jansch and the people who he inspired, including Wizz Jones, Martin Carthy, John Renbourne and most notably actor/comedian/folk musician Billy Connolly, who acts as the documentary’s would be narrator. Furthermore, it is not a new work; it was in fact made in 1992 for television and has been rereleased following Jansch’s death in 2011. The documentary itself is concerned with giving Jansch the exposure and congratulations Leman and Connolly believe he deserves, combining a few archival pictures and footage with - what was in 1992 - Jansch’s most recent performances. The fact he plays often only to Connolly or his fellow duet partner gives the recitals a rich and deeply personal touch that to fans will be a rewarding and special experience.
However I’d like to stress the word fans. I have a great love for acoustic guitar and citing Bert Jansch as the greatest acoustic guitarist of them all without truly exploring other guitarists around at the time, is actually quite annoying; Davey Graham is mentioned but is left in the wake of Leman’s Jansch love-fest. Jansch may be a great guitarist but as a singer he is not, and his dull uncharismatic tones are matched only by his character, which is a shame because I doubt this is his fault. The film is filled with references to Neil Young and Bob Dylan saying how great Jansch is, with singer songwriter Ralph Mctell citing him as a charismatic performer, however Leman never shows us this; instead we get an ageing Jansch performing songs with his ageing voice and other people telling us what the likes of Dylan said of him. Undoubtedly he was influential and very skilled, but when Jansch duets with his hero Brownie McGhee he is completely dwarfed when it comes to passion and soul, leaving the audience questioning his greatness.
This documentary has a place on BBC4; however it cannot stand up with the great documentary films of the past few years. Its saving grace is Connolly, who is hilarious and just about convinces us of Jansch’s great technical talent. Yet a great documentary must go beyond the technical and Jan Leman fails to do this. I have a feeling that, as Jansch says, he and his generation of musicians will be swallowed up by musical history.