If the purpose of an environmental documentary is to make you see an otherwise invisible world of problems attached to an item in your hands, Musicwood is a striking success.
This elegant, troubling 2012 feature by director Maxine Trump follows top brass from three of the U.S.’s most revered makers of acoustic guitars—Martin, Gibson, and Taylor—as they grapple with the ecological costs of one of their prime ingredients: old-growth Sitka spruce, the wood of choice for building the light, resonant soundboards of their instruments. Nearly all of this wood comes from one place, Tongass National Forest in the Alaskan Panhandle. Tongass contains the largest unbroken stretch of temperate coniferous rainforest in the world. But only a few short decades of clearcutting, to feed not just the relatively tiny guitar market but the booming Asian-based industries in construction materials and veneers, has erased a huge percentage of old spruce stands.
Like most compelling films, Musicwood lays out a story in which heroes and villains are harder to separate than they seem at first. For starters, the product under the microscope here isn’t a roll of paper towels. It’s a soul-stirring, centuries-old musical device—and almost everyone, from the most ardent environmentalist to the most profit-obsessed corporate CEO, has a favourite song that’s played on one. Add to this the fact that the clearcuts are being carried out not by some faceless multinational but by a First Nation-run corporation that emerged from years of struggle over land claims. And then complicate matters with tensions between the well-heeled executives of that corporation and its poor and embittered “shareholders”, many of whom see their traditional resources and way of life being liquidated.
Even the nobly intended Musicwood Coalition—formed by the otherwise competing guitar makers at the behest of Greenpeace—ends up getting compromised. After gaining a degree of trust and cooperation from the aboriginal business leaders in Tongass, its mission to conserve old-growth spruce is suspended when the Gibson company gets raided by U.S. officials for importing illegal wood from Madagascar.
With cameo appearances by Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle, Kaki King, and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, Musicwood is charged with the West Coast landscape and the much-loved musical instruments that rely on it. Viewers, whether guitarists or not, will rightfully worry about the future of both.