It's 1933, and a father-son team of musicologists is traveling in the Deep South, trying to collect the folk music of America. As part of their work, they find themselves in unlikely places and situations in search of the country's homegrown musical traditions.
When they find themselves at one of the nation's most oppressive penitentiaries, John and his son must pass an unsavory warden to record a chain gang and the songs they sing as they go about their hard labor. But once they get past the warden, John finds himself confronting starker truths about himself, and perhaps America itself.
Written and directed by Lukas Huffman, this elegant, disquieting short drama is inspired by the experiences of famed musicologist team John and Alan Lomax, whose project to collect recordings (particularly from Black Americans) for the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress would have an indelible influence on popular music.
The short limits its scope to a single encounter between the folklorists and a few members of a chain gang. But rendered with thoughtfully pared-down dialogue and evocative visuals, this single visit captures the moral and intellectual complexity of the Lomaxes' project, as well as the personal stakes of a man confronted with his demons.
For a film about music, the visuals are often arresting, with cinematography that's both luminous and melancholic and an eye for dramatic, striking framing. There's a Southern Gothic feel in the storytelling that renders the South with precision and economy. But the shadows and darker tones also reflect the quietly haunted soul of John, who is grappling with a series of personal losses as he embarks on his ambitious project, which is by no means easy in and of itself.
Actor David Patrick Kelly -- perhaps best known for his role as Jerry Horne in the influential TV series Twin Peaks -- plays John Lomax as a consummate professional on the surface, with a courtly and even scholarly demeanor. But when confronted with the prisoners of the chain gang he wishes to record -- in the execution chamber, no less -- he is faced with the reality of the men, and the music, whose songs reflect their toil and oppression. And when met with a request to help sway the state governor towards a pardon for the prisoner (echoing Lomax's real-life encounter with folk legend Leadbelly), he must reckon with his role in the project, as well as face his traumas.
Thought-provoking and haunting as the music it features, "Night Music" is an intriguing piece of a larger narrative puzzle, as John is left at a turning point, though with no clear way forward. But it also works as a snapshot of a man at a time of quiet desperation. The archive that John Lomax helped build is a genuine American cultural treasure, but few rarely remember that he embarked on the project after losing both his job and his wife. The film's unique gift is how it imagines Lomax would be personally affected by the seemingly simple but emotionally moving music he collected. Though he never wrote the songs he recorded, the film suggests there is something of him -- and perhaps all of us -- intertwined in the loneliness, desire suffering at the core of the many American ballads, work songs and blues laments he made famous. A single song can capture the harrowing interplay of personal loss and larger history, and the soul of a man and a nation itself.