The seminal story of how modern classical music turned Louisville, Ken., into a mid-20th century cultural phenomenon feels far less thrilling than it should, at least in the hands of co-directors Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler. That's because their documentary, "Music Makes a City," despite its gorgeous soundtrack, historical sweep and wealth of archival material, is weakened by sluggish pacing and an overly detailed, increasingly narrow focus.
Singer-songwriter-actor Will Oldham's lecture-like narration tells how the 1937 formation of the Louisville Orchestra helped rejuvenate the city after the Great Depression and, later, a devastating flood. By the early 1950s, led by conductor Robert Whitney and championed by Louisville's progressive, arts-loving mayor, Charles Farnsley, the ensemble became a spiritual home for major composers from around the world — Lukas Foss, Chou Wen-chung and Elliott Carter, among many others — whose work was famously commissioned, premiered and recorded by the orchestra. This visionary approach also attracted such luminaries as dancer Martha Graham and conductor Dmitri Shostakovich.
It's amazing stuff, which the filmmakers strangely fail to frame within a current context.
Still, interviews here with a range of Louisville Orchestra musicians and composers as well as various hometown observers are rich. And key musical interludes, set to reverent, postcard-pretty landscapes, are stirring to hear, though frankly dull to watch.
"Music Makes a City." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.