COURTESY NATIONAL ARCHIVES / NEW YORK TIMES
A soldier in a damaged church in Acerno, Italy, in 1943, from Ken Burns' 15-hour PBS documentary "The War," about World War II.
Setting World War II to music
The mythology of modern times doesn't get any bigger or have more impact than the midcentury paroxysm called the Second World War. It consumed the entire planet and forever altered mankind's fragile hold on destiny. As an object of both scholarly scrutiny and artistic interpretation, WWII simply can't be revisited enough.
Original Soundtrack of "The War: A Ken Burns Film"
Single CD retail price $18.98
Four-disc boxed set $49.98
So when master documentarian Ken Burns tackled the subject for public television, he bit off more than he could chew. The subject is simply too vast. Burns wisely decided to concentrate on the emotional fallout of small-town Americans thrust into the conflict, but still, he had to lard it up with basic chronology and factoids to put it into a linear perspective.
One of Burns' talents has been the adroit use of music. Melodies from the era instantly place it in the flow of time for viewers, while the use of recurring musical leitmotifs signal the proper emotional reaction for viewers and provide a sense of structure. On "The War," Burns has been largely successful at this, but there are times when you just want the guy to lighten up.
Popular and classical music, you see, was a weapon, just like tanks and bombs and propaganda. The vibrant, can-do spirit of American life permeated the product, and it made us different from them. But while it brought the nation together, subsequently, it froze others out.
So picking the right music isn't just a good idea for a World War II doc, it's critical. The biggest problem with Burns' choices for his film is that the serious and gigantic nature of the subject clearly weighted their choices. The music is somber and respectful and reflective. But it's not much fun. The drive that animates much of the music from the era is simply missing, and the modern and classical pieces chosen are, frankly, droning dirges.
COURTESY NATIONAL ARCHIVES / NEW YORK TIMES
Workers are on the B&O Railroad in 1943.
Some of it is wildly inappropriate, particularly a Wynton Marsalis composition called "Movin' Back" upon which Doug Wamble operates a slide guitar as if it were a paint gun -- long, keening notes that blend together into a blank whole. It sounds like a theremin on a cheesy sci-fi movie and, divorced from the images, is almost unlistenable. The solemnity that attends the whole proceeding pretty much sucks the life out of it. This is not the sound of people being reverent, but the gasp of those who have given up.
Modern additions, such as Norah Jones' stony take on the "American Anthem" tone poem, are equally weighed down. Part of the problem is that we're looking back -- following the war, the bounce and swing of big band jazz was made irrelevant by the horrors of war, and replaced by the mournful ruminations of bebop.
There are two versions of "The War" soundtrack on the market, and the more expensive one is the better collection. The basic soundtrack includes a sampler collection of what's on the documentary, and it is bookended by vocal and instrumental versions of the Jones tune. It also has some rather restrained big-band tunes from Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. (Burns, frankly, could have scored the entire series simply from Basie's rich repertoire.)
The larger box version includes three more discs, compilations that dig deeper into the musical heritage of the era, even if not all of the melodies were heard in the documentary. This is good stuff, and these are the discs you will return to.
The "Sentimental Journey" disc is a hot playlist of popular tunes, including Tommy Dorsey's "I'll Be Seeing You," or Harry James' "I'll Get By," or Glenn Miller's shout-out for "Little Brown Jug."
"I'm Beginning To See The Light" is dance music, mostly instrumental, and rich and infectious. We're talking the pick of the litter -- Glenn Miller's "In The Mood," Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing" -- plus many pleasant surprises, such as Charlie Barnet's "Cherokee" and Erskine Hawkins' "Tuxedo Junction."
"Songs Without Words" is a disc filled with classical music that is either linked to, or appropriate to, the war era, and so it is probably the most adventurous disc of the lot. William Walton's sonorous dirge "The Death of Falstaff" is a repeat fixture on the series, as is Aaron Copland's clarinet concerto, and so they get a repeat run-through here. Liszt, Dvorák, Elgar and Fauré are among the great composers featured here.
Curiously omitted is Shostakovich's "Seventh," the conditions under which it was composed being one of the great untold stories of the war, but maybe that's being saved for a future documentary. There are certainly more stories to be told.