If you ever wondered what the secret ingredient was in Bay Area documentaries that set them apart, here’s Chris Simon riffing on This Ain’t No Mouse Music, the soul-recharging portrait of El Cerrito roots-music maven Chris Strachwitz she co-directed with Maureen Gosling. “I think it’s a beautifully handcrafted film,” she says. “It’s down home. And documentaries today, it’s all character or story-driven or politically-driven. Our film is beautiful in all aspects and a lot of people don’t recognize the craft in it because now it seems like [docs are] all about the subject. Chris, of course, is a great subject, but there’s a lot more going on in this film than just the story.”
A rambunctious slice of a life well lived, This Ain’t No Mouse Music is best described as an experiential documentary. Yes, you’ll learn something about German immigrant Chris Strachwitz, the founder of El Cerrito-based Arhoolie Records and longtime champion of all kinds of indigenous American music rarely heard outside their community. Yes, there’s the sociocultural issue of traditional, authentic music perpetually threatened by mass-marketed “mouse music” (as Strachwitz derisively refers to mainstream fodder).
Primarily, though, this good-time movie consists of hanging out with Strachwitz and listening to his friends (aka his recording artists) swing, strum, pick and sing. As Simon says, “We wanted to make it like the folks that are watching the film are part of the film.”
This approach will sound familiar to fans of the late, great East Bay filmmaker Les Blank (Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers) whose subjects included Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Marc Savoy and numerous other musicians. Simon and Gosling were introduced to documentary filmmaking by Blank and collaborated with him for many years. (Simon was even married to him for two decades.) While it’s accurate to place This Ain’t No Mouse Music in the Blank mode and tradition, Gosling gently points out that she and Simon were important, long-time contributors to the so-called Blank ethos.
Their friendship and association with Strachwitz goes back nearly four decades to Chulas Fronteras (1976), which brought wider attention to the talents of Flaco Jimenez and other musicians on the Texas-Mexico border. I don’t know how long Simon and Gosling prodded Strachwitz before he agreed to be the focus of This Ain’t No Mouse Music, but more than a year after the film debuted at SXSW (and exactly a year after its local premiere in the Mill Valley Film Festival) he still sounds reluctant.
“No, I didn’t want to have a movie made about me,” Starchwitz says with a shy laugh. “I don’t like to be seen and now I feel sort of weird. Can’t hide any more, after these things are out there. But anything to try and sell this music to keep it going. I figure it’s a nice idea and I’m very happy to have lived this incredibly happy life that I’m lucky enough to be part of. So I figured, well, what the heck, it doesn’t hurt. Ain’t gonna kill me.”
As the assorted laughter fades, Simon notes, “Certainly it was a problem while we were shooting because we would turn the camera on Chris and he’d go ‘No, no, shoot the musicians.’ He really did not want to be the focus of the film. He wanted the music to shine. Of course, when we got back to the editing room, that was reflected in our footage. So we cut out a lot of great music so we would have a little more of Chris and make him the through line.”
"And we had, altogether, over a hundred hours of footage that we shot,” Gosling adds, “and the music, and the archive of his home movies, Les’ films, and Chris’ massive photo archive. I don’t know how many hours, [but] if you added all that up it would be a huge amount to choose from, so it was painful to have to leave out whole musical traditions that couldn’t fit.”
Rest assured that the music that made it into the movie, and the scenes of Strachwitz interacting with the musicians (as well as lesser mortals for whom he has little patience) is choice stuff. What’s the secret ingredient? Heart.
This Ain’t No Mouse Music opens Friday, Sept. 9, 2014 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley, Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol in Sebastopol. The filmmakers and/or musical guests will be at various screenings opening weekend. For more information, visit argotpictures.com.