On Nov. 18, moviegoers will gather in droves to see Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix star as June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. But it's unlikely that young Hollywood will ever dye its hair black to tell the story of the hugely influential, incredibly prolific Dust Bowl–era proto-country trio the Carter Family—June's mother, Maybelle; Maybelle's cousin Sara; and Sara's husband, A.P. Of course, it's just as well. This evocative and thoughtful PBS documentary (on disc Sept. 20) is told via audio clips, old still photographs, and a cast of family members and musicians. With some additional narration by Robert Duvall, this oral history is exponentially more tasteful (and truer to the facts) than any studio-produced blockbuster could ever be. And isn't it perhaps the province of a certain class of legend to go under pop culture's radar?
The Carter Family were the first inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and at the end of this film, noted Southern gothic singer- songwriter Gillian Welch says, "Modern music starts crumbling if you start taking away all the people who were so deeply influenced by the Carters." Yet A.P. Carter died a relatively poor and forgotten man in 1960. As Circle makes clear, the Carter Family story is painted with tragedy. Fans hear this in the music they wrote and the songs they covered, but stories about what really happened in the Carters' home—especially in context of the Great Depression—prove that the dark, melancholy folk songs only scratched the surface of their reality.
On a DVD extra track, the "Carter Scratch" is beautifully detailed. A style of guitar playing that incorporates melody and chords and is responsible for just about every guitar lead written since, it's Maybelle's invention and the hallmark of the trio's sound. Musicologist Mike Seeger tries to demonstrate her method, but no one can do it like "Mother Maybelle" did, and that makes Circle all the more meaningful.
OTHER WORTHWHILE recent releases include: a new two-disc Cinderella, a reissued Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the Quentin Crisp portrait Resident Alien, Robots, the superior Holocaust-memory picture Voyages, the Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels, Kevin Smith's bonus-filled Mallrats, It's All Gone Pete Tong, Mike Leigh's Naked, Bob Dylan in No Direction Home, and a box set of Warren Miller ski movies. For the budget-conscious, Geneon's Cinema Deluxe imprint offers no-frills titles like The Big Combo for only $10.