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PBS Home Video presents
The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken (2005)

"They weren't playing hillbillies, and they weren't playing hayseeds. Rural people, people in those mountains, they responded to the fact that the Carters represented them with such dignity and such grace."
- A.P. Carter biographer Mark Zwonitzer

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: September 20, 2005

Stars: A.P. Carter, Sara Carter, Maybelle Carter
Other Stars: Robert Duvall
Director: Cathy Conkwright

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:53m:09s
Release Date: September 20, 2005
UPC: 841887051682
Genre: country

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B+B-B C

DVD Review

The roots of country music get a thoughtful and informative exploration in this documentary, produced by the Nashville affiliate for PBS's American Experience series; there are a couple of missteps by the documentarians, but the film is very good at getting at both the personal stories and the cultural import of the most famous family of Poor Valley, Virginia. This is the story of the Carters, and particularly of the family's great patriarch, A.P.; he had grand dreams for himself and his brood in the music business, and on various levels his life was an astonishing success and a bitter disappointment. Filled with archival footage, new interviews with descendants and music historians, and of course lots of music, this is a useful overview of the Carter family, especially for those for whom this will serve as an introduction.

Essentially, the story of the Carters is a triangle. A.P. was a voracious student of the indigenous music of the South, and logged thousands of miles, to every small town and every farm lying outside, looking for songs. His, wife, Sara, had the voice of an angel; A.P.'s brother's wife, Maybelle, was a self-taught guitar virtuoso. And the three of them blended together absolutely perfectly, their big break coming in a 1927 audition in Bristol, Tennessee, for Ralph Peer, a producer looking for something to record for the Victrola. Peer and his group, The Carter Family, practically invented the market for country music; the family's songs of personal despair spoke with particular resonance to a regional audience so badly battered by the worst days of the Great Depression.

But the image of family harmony was one for their records alone. The marriage between A.P. and Sara was a contentious one; she eventually left him and served him with divorce papers, a story that A.P. worked assiduously to keep under wraps. Fostering the illusion of domestic bliss was crucial to the success of the family business; even after they were no longer married, they continued to record together under the Carter Family moniker. In large measure this was because of the coming of radio, which had the possibility of bringing the Carters' music to a huge new audience, and to create an enormous financial windfall.

The film tells their story cleanly and with clarity—family biographer Mark Zwonitzer is an especially good interview—but someone had the unwise idea to employ some actors to pose in period Carter Family tableaux, and to ask them to lip sync to the Carters' scratchy old records. I understand that you've got to show something, and that film clips of the Carters in their heyday are extraordinarily scarce, at best; but these bits play out as cheesy and false, undercutting the authenticity of the rest of the documentary. Robert Duvall is a little stilted but steady providing the narration; overall, it's a respectful effort.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A little dull and faded with the palette; nothing terribly wrong here, but nothing to write home about, either.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Modest and solid effort on the audio; the old Carter 78s sound wonderfully scratchy.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 9 cues and remote access
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The Carter Scratch and Mother Maybelle's Guitar (09m:06s) is a look at Maybelle's unusual guitar technique; she in fact played the same instrument for 50 years, and this featurette includes clips from its enshrinement in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Musician Mike Seeger tells us about The Guitar in American Music (01m:54); Carter Family Fold: A Wholesome Family Experience (07m:51s) is little more than a promo piece for the tourist destination being run by A.P.'s daughter Janette.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

A solid look at the first family of country music, warts and all.


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