Life Through Music: Sing Your Song, Merle Haggard—Learning to Live with Myself

FILM, Film Festivals

At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Harry Belafonte and Merle Haggard on living.

Harry Belafonte isn’t regarded as one of the critically acclaimed stars of the ’50s and ’60s; in fact, his calypso and blues inspired-music, charitably, could be called quaint. That’s not to say he wasn’t popular—he was the first artist to sell over a million copies of an LP. However, perhaps because of this lack of musical legacy, his impact in terms of civil rights and race relations has been severely underestimated. Sing Your Song is as earnest and hagiographical as you’d expect given it was produced by Belafonte’s daughter, and mostly features Belafonte talking about the impact he had. But it’s hard to deny that his influence was impressive, and this documentary serves to ensure his name isn’t forgotten.

Few popular ‘black’ musicians in the late ’50s and ’60s were able to make much of a stand for civil rights. Motown and ’50s rock‘n’roll pioneers were forced to adopt safe personas so as to not frighten the masses, and only a few, like Nina Simone (for whom it came at a big artistic cost) and Belafonte, made big public statements. It was only in the later ’60s that politicisation and music started to seep together. Sing Your Song shows Belafonte recounting his childhood, spent in part in Jamaica (an obvious source for his later hits), while his later politicisation came following a number of unsavoury incidents. It also hints at some of the ‘controversial’ moments—touching ‘white’ women on television, interracial marriages, and interracial dancing on air.

The documentary is a fascinating historical document given Belafonte’s involvement in a number of major popular culture events: from the Civil Rights, his friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., to his friendship with Nelson Mandela, and his assistance in publicising Miriam Makeba in the US. Some of the original television footage, in particular, is illuminating. Whereas most ’50s ‘black’ rock‘n’roll stars cuddlified themselves (e.g. Fats Domino), and therefore downplayed their sexuality (Little Richard excepted), the sight of hunky Belafonte in tight t-shirts with ‘white’ women would have been no doubt controversial. And as the film showed, there were many other moments in which Belafonte was present at the ‘right’ time.

The film is hampered by the fact that Belafonte largely narrates it, almost like a memoir. It perhaps could have done with a little space from its protagonist, as it’s hard to judge objectively his impact. It gets to the point that you unfairly wonder if there must be skeletons, that people really aren’t that noble. But for a figure whose role in popular culture is more important than he is arguably given credit for, it’s an enjoyable and intimate watch of dissent and courage during periods of American tumult.

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For an opposite, yet complementary take on American popular culture, Merle Haggard: Learning to Live with Myself looks at a legendary country star. Merle Haggard’s life wasn’t as noble as Belafonte’s, but fascinates all the same, and is a story well-known to his fans (and Robert Duvall, whose performance in Tender Mercies was arguably based on Haggard). The son of “Okies” who moved to California during the Dust Bowl era, Haggard found his life going off the rails as a teenager following the sudden death of his father. He was consigned to San Quentin prison for a number of years, and after watching Johnny Cash’s magnetic performance before thousands of prisoners, resolved to go down the music route, and ultimately turned his life around. It’s a story of second chances and the American Dream, as Haggard transformed himself into a hugely influential country music star. But unlike other artists who styled themselves as outlaws, Haggard really lived it.

Like Sing Your Song, Learning to Live with Myself is composed of the artist narrating his story, only Haggard takes a more rough edge given the swerves in his personal life. However, just as racial politics shaped Belafonte, issues of class and poverty influenced Haggard. He recounts being called an “Okie” (a derogatory term akin to “white trash”), the treatment of poor people by the criminal justice system (in part contributing to his extended jail sentence), and how his most famous song, the hippie baiting ‘Okie from Muskogee’, was an attack on middle class sanctimony, rather than necessarily a “redneck” anthem. Haggard was adopted as a voice for the forgotten masses—those marginalised both economically and aesthetically. (The standard music history narrative on the late ’60s has largely ignored the likes of Haggard in its favouring of less influential anti-war protest music—though heck, even Joan Baez covered Haggard.) Director Gandulf Hennig assembles an impressive cast to speak about Haggard: Keith Richards, John Fogerty, Robert Duvall, and his ex-wives, adding extra weight where Sing Your Song lacked it. Interspersed with the biography is plenty of concert footage, with Haggard’s music used to good effect.

The film loses a bit of steam as Haggard’s life becomes ‘easier’—perhaps a cruel expectation to have in a biography. And unlike Belafonte’s struggles later in life, it’s easy to see Haggard falling into comfort, though at the same time not feeling at peace about where he had ended up (especially given Haggard’s characters in his songs). The moment when Haggard returns to his childhood town is an especially poignant moment—even a sly critique on the conservatism that he had just expressed—where things never stay the same despite people wanting them to. Both music documentaries also reveal the classic tensions in America’s popular mythology: suffering, bigotry, and backbreaking work mingled with promise, rewards, and ostensible freedom, and how those tensions have helped form its massively iconic popular culture.

‘Sing Your Song’, Dir. Susanne Rostock
USA, 2011; 103 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington; Christchurch, Dunedin (TBC).
‘Merle Haggard: Learning to Live with Myself’, Dir. Gandulf Hennig
USA, 2010; 83 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington; Christchurch, Dunedin (TBC). For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.