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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – TWO TRAINS RUNNIN’

Posted on Oct 2, 2016 by | 0 comments

The Milwaukee Film Festival has started and we have a slew of reviews of films at the festival. One of the bigger names at the festival this year is TWO TRAINS RUNNIN’ which is part of the Milwaukee Film Festival’s Black Lens program.

TWO TRAINS RUNNIN’ is a documentary which chronicles the search by some northern and California music lovers for two legendary Blues musicians, Skip James and Son House, during Freedom Summer of 1964. Two groups of white fans of the music, one from the Boston area and one from California, set out to Mississippi at the same time that the Civil Rights Act is being passed and civil rights workers are being murdered. There’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to link those two movements together in the journey, even if the white music fans were the subject of some periphery blowback from the angry segregationalists of the period, and the procedural elements of the search aren’t that interesting, certainly not as interesting as the Freedom Summer elements of the film, but the film ultimately makes a compelling case that finding these musicians and the resulting revival of interest in the Blues contributed to an arm of Civil Rights by introducing white America to compelling black culture. The film notes that Mississippi celebrates its Blues heritage today while it was completely ignored prior to 1964 by the powers that be.

What’s better than the story being told is the form the film uses to tell it. There are talking heads and narration, which gives the film a very PBS style, but the film also recreates the events and locations using animation and archival footage which makes the film visually come alive. Some of the footage is redundant with the interviews going on simultaneously, but it’s always a lot more interesting than simply watching talking heads.

Beyond that, the film is packed wall to wall with great music which really makes the film soar even when the rest of the film is being fairly rote. There are live performances by contemporary artists, which are certainly compelling, but what really brings the film alive is the vintage recordings and performances. The film makes a case for the power of the Blues, specifically Country Blues or Mississippi Delta Blues, and backs it up at every turn. Everytime the story may be growing thin, the film is able to insert some amazing music. It’s almost cheating how effective it is.

Maybe the soundtrack is better than the rest of the film, but the film makes an effective case for the power of music to bridge cultural gaps and that the people, politics, and music are all connected together in many unseen ways. It would be easy just to suggest seeking out the soundtrack, but the history and people behind that music are very compelling too and the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Recommended.

TWO TRAINS RUNNING is showing two more times at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Sunday, October 2, 2016 at 4:30 pm at the Times Cinema, and on Tuesday, October 4, 2016 at 4 pm at the Times Cinema. Tickets can be purchased online at Milwaukee Film’s website.

As a bonus, some Blues music from the objects of the search.


Robert Reineke
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