Soundies: A Musical History
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2007, Volume 14, #3
Written by John Metzger
The launch of MTV in 1981 may have revolutionized the recording industry, but it wasn’t the first concerted attempt to utilize music videos to market songs and artists to a targeted audience. The genesis for this concept actually began more than 40 years earlier when the innovative Mills Novelty Company began manufacturing the Panoram machine, an audio-visual jukebox that played 16mm film reels, each of which contained eight short clips that became known as Soundies. Panoram machines were placed in bars, train stations, and anywhere else that people tended to congregate. For the cost of a dime, users could view a three-minute segment that featured one of the top stars of the day. Between 1940 and 1946, the Mills Novelty Company made 1,865 Soundies, and understandably, many of these catered to fans of jazz, big band, and swing — which were the most popular styles of the day — though country, gospel, Latin, and comedic acts also were well represented.
Premiering in March on PBS, Soundies: A Musical History provides an insightful and informative examination of this unique and groundbreaking format. The program includes sizeable portions of performances by the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Les Paul, Nat King Cole, Fats Waller, and Count Basie, while interviews with Wynton Marsalis, film historian Leonard Maltin, and several of the dancers and actors who appeared in the original Soundies provide a context for comprehending the phenomenon.
In the process, America’s cultural history also is explored. Considering the times in which the Soundies were made, it isn’t surprising that discrimination against women, racial segregation, and prejudicial stereotypes were prevalent. At times, they embarrassingly were reinforced by the mini-films. Over the course of Soundies: A Musical History, however, a case also is made that the music videos helped to break down divisive barriers.
During World War II, for example, with male artists serving in the armed forces, women — who previously had been used largely as sex objects — were able to assume greater roles in the music industry. All-female acts such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm gained exposure and acceptance. Similarly, Gene Krupa became one of the first bandleaders to present interracial performances by uniting trumpeter Roy Eldridge with vocalist Anita O’Day. The documentary also highlights how the government partnered with the recording industry to create propaganda pieces that mocked America’s enemies and silenced potential critics of the war effort. It is through this historical prism that Soundies: A Musical History provides a unique and thought-provoking glimpse at how much life in the United States has changed as well as how much it has remained the same, despite the passage of more than 60 years. ˝
Soundies: A Musical History is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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