This documentary made in 2015 and released in early 2017 explores how the image of country singer is developed through photography and has been since the very start of the music genre. Through interviews with photographers, artists, singers, and musicians, the history of country music is explored and the emphasis on how image can help make or break an artist’s popularity are explained as well as the process behind some memorable photographs done by various photographers, some specializing in country portraits and other specialized in portraits.
Directed by Steven Kochones, the film takes photography as a marketing tool and shows the more artistic side of it. This is particularly well shown through a photoshoot with Lyle Lovett which shows the photographer’s process with his subject and how he works with the location to pull the best images possible. The interview with Lovett shows how important the communication and connection between artists and photographer is. A slew of other country stars also explain this and make it a point to talk about how certain photographers bring the best out of them. LeAnn Rimes goes on to explain that a good connection with a photographer and sometimes director can help her (and other artists) let their guards down and be more vulnerable in front of the camera which in turn connects with the viewer. This angle is one of those that brings the importance of connection to the forefront.
Also dug into rather deeply is the importance of image in the early days of country music which had to be done through photography as there was very little television and definitely no Country Music Television to help create this image. An artist’s official professional image at the time was the one distributed to radios, newspapers, magazines, etc. Most fans got their idea of the artist’s style, personality, and quirks often through just the one photograph. The film doesn’t just have country stars talking about the power of image and photographs, but also performances and music by them, including music by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, and Merle Haggard to name just a few. Of course a documentary about anything related to music should have a ton of it and this one does. The music used ranges from old school country to current stars which gives an idea of the range the genre has for people who may not be fans or may be very casual fans.
Also, as the film is about photography, the cinematography is of utmost importance here. This is done by Luke Geissbuhler who sets scenes like photo shoots at times and uses this to make it feel like the film is not only about photography but all firmly planted in the visual arts. His way of using the light and framing shows a knowledge of not only video but also photographic arts.
Country: Portraits of an American Sound is a documentary that should be of interest for fans of country music, history buffs, and photography enthusiasts and professionals alike. It’s not only well shot, edited, and full of useful information, it is also a fun watch where the viewer might learn a thing or two.
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