Try This Path: John Sayles on Arhoolie Records and THIS AIN’T NO MOUSE MUSIC

by John Sayles

The use of prerecorded music in movies is a form of alchemy. Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme come to mind as two of the most accomplished alchemists still working, the success of their efforts not in creating a name-that-tune familiarity with the track, but in finding the chanson juste that lifts a moment or a sequence in spirit and either comments on or cements the meaning of the on-screen action.

Many a time I go through a production thinking I know exactly the right song for a moment in a film, even starting the negotiations for synchronization rights (unless it is in the beloved public domain), only to find when I begin to edit that the song either bogs the sequence down or overpowers it. Then comes a long but often exhilarating process of trial and error—you hear something that you think might be right in provenance, tone and beat, play it against the footage, slide it around, then try another and another. You can love the song to death and want in in your movie, but if it doesn’t serve the story in every way, it doesn’t belong there. And then you play something with the scene and the scene is new and better and exciting and you pray you can afford the rights.


So you listen to a lot of music in a lot of genres. What could be more fun than that? But there is only so much time, and it helps to have a guide, someone who’s been down paths you’ve never taken, who can steer you toward gold you never knew existed. Though he’s probably never had one on his head, I always picture Chris Strachwitz wearing a pith helmet. I came to him in our musical explorations through the Morning Becomes Eclectic show on KCRW in Santa Monica during the Tom Schnabel and Chris Douridas years. Often I would hear something that knocked me out on that show and track the album that held the cut down to a record store (what we called them in those days) only to find that it was an Arhoolie release. When we made Passion Fish it was Arhoolie recording Clifton Chenier and John Delafose, when we made Lone Star it was Arhoolie laboring to bring Lydia Mendoza and other incredible border musicians to a wider public, and when we were about to make Men With Guns , set in an unnamed but hyperreal Latin American country and crying out for emotional, evocative music of all kinds, we went right to the source, Chris Strachwitz, who founded Arhoolie Records in 1960 and has been traveling geographically and temporally in search of great, underexposed music ever since. He brought us to Toto la Momposina and Lito Barrientos and Susana Baca and dozens of other terrific artists who I’ve used in later movies, or who I just love to listen to. Because the great thing about Chris Strachwitz is that he doesn’t just bring back artifacts, he marks the trail for you. Try this path, he tells you, you’ll find something incredible.


No surprise that Strachwitz served as a producer and musical guide for Les Blank on a couple of his most joyous documentaries, and that he’s the subject of a new movie directed by Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling (who edited many of Blank’s films). This Ain’t No Mouse Music tells the story of how an immigrant kid from Germany came to turn so many of us on to so much great music we’d never have found otherwise—think Timothy Leary with no brain cells slaughtered. And it’s got a killer soundtrack.

This Ain’t No Mouse Music screens September 18 (7 pm) at Rialto Cinemas in El Cerrito, and September 19-25 at the Roxie in San Francisco, the Elmwood in Berkeley, Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol, and Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Go here for information on special screenings with music by Creole Belles, La Familia Peña-Govea, Michael Doucet, and Will Spires; and Q&A discussions with Chris Strachwitz, Bonnie Raitt, and co-directors Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling.

JohnSaylesJohn Sayles is one of America’s most influential independent filmmakers as well  as a screenwriter, fiction  writer, playwright, and actor. As a powerful storyteller, he developed his screenwriting skills with innovative B-movie scripts for producer- director Roger Corman including THE HOWLING, PIRANHA, THE LADY IN RED,  ALLIGATOR, and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN. Working outside Hollywood, his first movie  as write/director was the low-budget surprise critical and box office success RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN (1979), the tale of a reunion of 1960s activists  that won several prizes. Next came a series of diverse dramas with BABY IT’S YOU  (1983), LIANNA (1983), BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1985),  MATEWAN (1987), EIGHT MEN OUT (1988) and CITY OF HOPE (1990). Sayles’  screenplays for PASSION FISH (1992) and LONE STAR (1996) were Oscar  nominated. Among his later works are the mystical children’s film THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH (1994), the Spanish-language MEN WITH GUNS (1997), the Florida real- estate tale SUNSHINE STATE (2000), the African-American music and rock & roll  roots fable HONEYDRIPPER (2007) and his two recent topical dramas, AMIGO (2010) and GO FOR SISTERS (2013). Music plays an essential part in John’s movies and he has directed several music videos for Bruce Springstein including Born in the U.S.A. His fiction includes the novels, Pride of the Bimbos (1975), Union Dues (1977), Los Gusanos (1991), and A Moment in the Sun (2011) and the short story  collections, The Anarchists’ Convention (1979) and Dillinger in  Hollywood (2004).

John Sayles Blog

Some movies that influenced John Sayles 

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His films are available on DVD and via download

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