“I WENT TO THE DANCE/J’AI ETE AU BAL is a feature-length documentary made in the late 1980s by Arhoolie Records producer, Chris Strachwitz, the late celebrated filmmaker Les Blank and me. The film has been digitally restored in 5k, a rare process for a documentary film, through Blank’s son, Harrod, and digital restoration magician Anthony Matt. I WENT TO THE DANCE captures the most important musicians of the southwest Louisiana Cajun and Zydeco/Creole traditions, Clifton Chenier, Marc and Ann Savoy, Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil, D.L. Menard, Dennis McGee, Canray Fontenot, Wayned Toups, Bois Sec Ardoin and more. It’s both history and joyful cultural celebration.” Co-director Maurren Gosling on I WENT TO THE DANCE which is having a fully restored screening at SxSW 2021 Online! Also featured in this interview are co-director Chris Strachwitz, Digital Restoration artists Harrod Blank and Anthony Matt along with filmmaker and assistant Chris Simon.
Adds filmmaker Chris Simon: “The film celebrates the Cajun and Zydeco music of Southwest Louisiana. And we mean CELEBRATE! Put on your dancing shoes as we go to the source to hear from some of the icons of the music as well as some of the youngsters. What other film will you see a musician stand on his instrument? Or hear from musicians now dead? This is not a surface tale, but one told by the people themselves. And this new 5K version makes it be like you are almost there.”
I hear some of you are “back” at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past!
Maureen Gosling: I have been to SXSW with three other films: the digitally restored rock epic on Leon Russell by Les Blank called, A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON; the digitally restored 1976 classic film by Chris Strachwitz and Les Blank on Texas-Mexican border music entitled CHULAS FRONTERAS and the feature length documentary directed by Chris Simon and me THIS AIN’T NO MOUSE MUSIC! about American roots music producer Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records.
Harrod Blank, Executive Producer on Digital Restoration: I first came to SXSW in 2015 with A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON which I helped to re-master and release, followed by CHULAS FRONTERAS in 2018, and then with a film I produced and directed called WHY CAN’T I BE ME? AROUND YOU in 2019.
Chris Simon: Maureen Gosling and I were there in 2013 for the premiere of our film THIS AIN’T NO MOUSE MUSIC! about Chris Strachwitz (the producer of I Went to the Dance) and Arhoolie Records. I returned for the long delayed premiere of Les Blank’s film on Leon Russel, A Poem is a Naked Person. Loved the festival both times!
So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past!
Chris Strachwitz: I had known Les Blank for some time and realized he was a fine documentary filmmaker including having made my favorite Les Blank film about my first recording artist for my Arhoolie Record label: MANCE LIPSCOMB: “A WELL SPENT LIFE”. So I got together with him in the 1970s to conceive and produce the film CHULAS FRONTERAS about accordion based Texas-Mexican border music and the lives of the workers who supported this regional Norteno or Tejano Conjunto genre a new version of which was shown at a recent SXSW Festival. By this time I had made some money as a producer, distributor, and music publisher and was able to get involved in making films which had the possibility of reaching larger audiences and let more people enjoy some of the amazing, beautiful and powerful sounds of American regional traditions which had completely captured my passions. By the time I got together with Les, Maureen, and Chris Simon for this film about the Cajun and Creole musics of SW Louisiana, I WENT TO THE DANCE, I had already observed Les’ films about some of the Cajuns and Creole musicians. I had also met and recorded many musicians for my Arhoolie label including Marc Savoy, Clifton Chenier, Michael Doucet, Luderin Darbone of the Hackberry Ramblers, Canray Fontenot, and many others. I had also met folklorist Barry Ancelet who along with Michael Doucet were able to render authentic historic perspectives to their culture and the music. I was very happy with the result although Les felt there was too much commentary from talking heads. I always felt more my role as an ex-teacher which had been my first profession which I felt had been lacking in CHULAS FRONTERAS. Since I was also a passionate record collector I was happy to meet other record producers along the way and these hunting expeditions for music, musicians and records easily blended with my delight in meeting these many different and wonderful human beings and their lives and ways to make a living which were generally quite different from my own. I loved not only their music, food, and delightful openness towards me since they apparently really felt that I was a real and increasingly more knowledgeable fan of their worlds and especially historic older recordings. My greatest joy probably came largely from the sheer pleasure of meeting these people and their cultures who all were involved in music I felt very passionate about. These adventures were for me the perfect vacations or hunting trips to see and meet other worlds which I wanted to share with a wider audience which would otherwise probably never get the chance to hear and see these ever evolving traditions.
Maureen: I have been a filmmaker for more than 49 years, working as a director, producer, editor, sound recordist and distributor. People know me best for my 20-year collaboration, as co-filmmaker, editor and sound recordist, with the late director Les Blank on more than two-dozen documentaries. Our best-known film is the British Academy Award winning “making of” classic, BURDEN OF DREAMS, on Werner Herzog’s filming of FITZCARRALDO in the Peruvian Amazon. I found my calling by being an editor and have edited dozens of films. I have teamed up with producer Jed Riffe on many films, including editing his WAITING TO INHALE and CALIFORNIA’S “LOST’ TRIBES. Recent projects as editor include: A DANGEROUS IDEA, directed by Stephanie Welch; THE LONG SHADOW, directed by Frances Causey. In addition to THIS AIN’T NO MOUSE MUSIC!, I directed, produced and edited BLOSSOMS OF FIRE (2000), a feature-length, on the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, Mexico. I’m currently directing a feature length documentary, THE NINE LIVES OF BARBARA DANE, on the unsung American jazz/blues/folk singer/social activist, who is still with us at the age of 93.
Harrod: I was trained by my father, Les Blank, in 16mm film. He taught me a lot as I helped him on a lot of his films from GARLIC AS GOOD AS TEN MOTHERS on. In fact I appeared in that film as a 16 year old claiming that garlic had cured me of dysentery. I assisted him over the years by doing sound, editing, camera, and am currently helping to finish his last film about folk artist Butch Anthony from Seale Alabama. We are about a year in on editing at this point. Les also helped me on my films, usually doing cinematography, which he did on the Burning Man film project, (a 28 year film series in the works) every year for the last 15 years of his life. Because of my experience in film, it has helped me for the restoration process, in which the actual film is scanned, conformed, repositioned, cleaned, and digitally released. Les created a non-profit before his death, Les Blank Films, making me the president, and I have been working on re-mastering his films, one a year, with Anthony Matt ever since his death in 2013.
Chris: This film was record-producer Chris Strachwitz’ idea and vision. He enlisted Les Blank in the project.
How did this restoration project come together?
Maureen: Best is to ask Chris Strachwitz, but he tells it that he loved what Les Blank did with CHULAS FRONTERAS and the music of the south Texas-Mexican border music tradition and knew he would do a great job with the story of Cajun and Zydeco/Creole music. The first films I worked on were DRY WOOD AND HOT PEPPER with Les Blank, in 1972, so when this subject came up, 25+ years later, I was very excited. I was still working with Les, occasionally as a sound recordist, but most especially as an editor, and it felt like coming full circle. In those years I had gotten to know the music and musicians much more and it felt like “going back home.” Les felt he had already done good films about the music, so was not as thrilled. But we were all pretty pleased at the final result.
Harrod: This film came about a little by accident – and I should reiterate – the re-mastering of this film. As the original film was released in 1989. I was actually in Co-Filmmaker Chris Strachwitz’ vault at Arhoolie Records in El Cerrito when we were hunting for Chulas Fronteras elements, and I came upon a stack of A & B rolls from “I Went To The Dance” So I told Chris, that that should be the next film we do since the negatives were right there. The vault was not humidity controlled or very cold so I thought it would be a good reason to re-master it. After Chulas Fronteras came out, I went in with Chris and pulled those negatives for “I Went To The Dance” and scanned them to 5K myself with the help of Anthony Gabriele.
Chris: It isn’t money, fame and glory, that’s for sure. It is the people we meet and allow us entry into our lives.
What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?
Maureen: In my life, I have been fortunate to work on films whose subjects I care about, whether they be musical traditions, biographies, historical, political or cultural subjects. I care about them enough to devote months and years to them and even sacrifice for them, feeling that the world will be better knowing about Cajun and Zydeco music, Mexican Zapotec culture (BLOSSOMS OF FIRE), medical marijuana (WAITING TO INHALE), the history of California Indians (CALIFORNIA’S “LOST” TRIBES), recycling (RACING TO ZERO, Native Alaskans (SMOKIN’ FISH), and much, much more.
Harrod: Sheer love. The higher purpose of what I am doing now, by re-mastering these films, I feel is worth all of my time and sacrifice – that ultimately these works will outlive me.
What was your biggest challenge and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
Chris: Disappointments: The biggest one was my inability to persuade Clifton Chenier not to bring his own PA system to the stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival after great difficulties in even getting permission to film there – all due to my long time friendship with Quint Davis the producer and director – which resulted in endless feed-back by Clifton’s accordion amp which almost ruined every song. But also Les Blank’s often moodiness if he did not totally liked the scene! At least we did not have the many camera problems which we had while filming CHULAS FRONTERAS! And sometimes the problems with miking musicians which are so used to microphones everywhere – and even acoustically Cajun musicians don’t seem to have this naturally balance sound I was fortunate to have with Mexican musicians where the two voices, the accordion, the bajo and the string bass blend just beautifully into one mic! With Cajun music the voices sometimes are quite low and the accordion very loud and the fiddle very low – I am not sure why this developed like that – but the Mexicans were much more used to serenading people with two balanced voices, the bajo-sexto, the accordion and the string bass! Yes, I feel it was the infernal invention of the electric bass which made recording so difficult with one mic!
Maureen: On this film during the editing, the biggest challenge was that I I felt like I had to constantly negotiate between Les and Strachwitz, because Chris wanted to keep things in and Les wanted to take things out. I had to do little editing tricks to make them both feel satisfied thinking they had gotten their way. Most rewarding was to have a film that really covered most of the important figures in Cajun and Zydeco/Creole musical history so beautifully.
Harrod: The biggest challenge is mostly the time quotient. It just takes so much time to re-master a film and do it the best that you can. Having partnered with Anthony Matt has been super important as he really has a much better technical understanding of the process than I do. We partnered with Diamant, a French company, to use their dust removal software and it has worked really well. We will be using this software on all of the films we re-master from here on out.
Chris: The biggest challenge was keeping Les Blank engaged with what we were shooting. If Les didn’t feel inspired he simply wouldn’t shoot. In fact, he would often lie down and take a nap! That was fine behavior when we were on our usual laid back schedule, but we were trying to cover a lot of territory and story. [We actually ended up shooting 3 films during this time in Lousiana: Marc & Ann about Cajun musicians Marc and Ann Savoy, and Yum! Yum! Yum! about Cajun food} The biggest joy was hanging out with the Savoy family and eating some incredible meals. That and the Creole Trail Ride that BooZoo Chavez played at. BooZoo led the ride with two white mules pulling a buggy and then played a fabulous old-time dance.
I am about to get even more technical, but let’s talk more about the restoration and tech about I WENT TO THE DANCE. Let’s look under the hood!
Maureen: We were still shooting in 16mm film. Les used an Aaton camera; sound was recorded on the state of the art work horse, a Nagra 4.2. Les Blank was cinematographer on all his films and that was his true gift, an incredibly sensitive, quick, observant eye – of human emotion, feeling, beauty, as well as nature. He always went for the essence of the person or place.
Harrod: I would agree with Maureen here. My father had a knack for capturing images that would resonate, that would be iconographic in defining a time and place and I think in part that is why his films are still relevant so many years later. And, I would say the same for Chris Strachwitz, in his choice for which artists to record and how to record them. The team of my father and his imagery and Chris with his recordings made for some important cultural works. And of course adding Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon’s talents to the mix helped to bring these to fruition.
Chris: This film was shot in the mid 80s and originally released in 1989. We filmed with a Super-16 Aaton camera which ran 11 minute film reels. Camera Asst Susan Kell was constantly changing reels. We used a very heavy Nagra reel to reel recorder for sound. Usually we recorded the music with a Schoeps cardioid microphone on a boom. I did a lot of the sound and interviewing and helped keep Les on track. Les and I were a couple, and always worked with Maureen Gosling and Susan Kell. Chris Strachwitz was a close friend. It was a real team effort with all of us looking out for one another.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW Online?
Maureen: Seeing how people respond to the music, as well as the pristine presentation of this historic film.
Harrod: I am curious to see how having a world audience makes a difference – will there be more opportunities for this film given the world scope? As for what I will be missing, it will be the in person interaction at SXSW – the electricity in the air with so many creative people. I am not as keen as the once removed zoom relationship with people – it is just not the same. But we will make the best of it. I may actually have more time to watch more movies as a result so there may be some tradeoff.
Chris: I am very excited for the world to see the beautiful remastered film that Harrod Blank and Anthony Matt have created. I only wish Les Blank could see it too.
Clearly this is such a different time with virtual festivals and online screenings. How do you feel about releasing movies in this current format and how do you feel audiences will see most films in the future?
Maureen: It’s a real mix. On the one hand the potential for a wider audience is there in this new platform, but one of the key joys of a festival for a filmmaker is getting out of the editing room and being with people, other filmmakers, audience members, to share the response to the film, and celebrate together all the months and years of work.
Harrod: I am not sure about the virtual festival. I feel that one of the only rewards for making a film these days is having a good launch at a festival like SXSW and enjoying each other’s efforts and celebrating the accomplishment. Now it is all virtual and even the happiness derived from it. I am open to seeing how it goes, maybe we will all be surprised?
Anthony Matt, Digital Restoration: I think this is a great opportunity for more people to see the film than the regular film festival. The usual festival experience you can only see so many films 12 hour day and the travel times between venues and screen room capacity further limits the number of films you can see. The quality of screen a film with an audience is premium experience but I think this format can be beneficial for a re-released film.
Where is the movie going next? More festivals or a selective release?
Harrod: This is still to be determined. It sort of depends on what happens with COVID. I am a believer in theatrical experience so I am hoping that we can have a limited run of some sort with live music, food, and dance along with the film. We will see how it all pans out.
Chris: An additional positive comment I wish to make and that was the addition of Maureen Gosling to our crew for I WENT TO THE DANCE. Maureen had already been involved in DEL MERO CORAZON where she and our co-worker and co-editor, the late Prof. Guillermo Hernandez and others, had made what one critic termed as “Blank’s truest, most expressive film to date …” by focusing on the then current love songs, their poetry as well as pride in La Raza and the history of the music, which had been a bit neglected in CHULAS FRONTERAS.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or work in the business. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking, especially now as things are evolving at such a fast rate?
Maureen: To really do it well, it’s important to try all the different job, from sound to camera to editing. It gives one the respect needed to understand the time and space each role requires. It also takes incredible patience, perseverance and even sacrifice, resilience in the face of rejection (getting turned down for grants and film festivals) to make good films.
Harrod: I would suggest to work with someone you admire to do some learning and make your own project and also invest in other things financially so that if your movie doesn’t make money you will still be okay. Ie, buy Tesla stock or the like!
Anthony: Filmmakers need to think about the longevity of their films and how to ensure that they are seen 25, 50 and 200 years from now films are forever but only if they can be seen.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
Maureen: Too tough for me! I have seen some amazing films and can’t narrow them down to one.
Harrod: I really liked watching the SXSW Premiere of A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON with Leon Russell in the house in 2015. That was amazing to see a film that was essentially banned, get the light of day, and the audience reception was so over the top with love for Leon that it was so special. Will never forget that; I just wish my father was there too to witness and enjoy.
Anthony: Western by Bill and Turner Ross. It is an incredibly well observed film. They are exceptional nonfiction filmmakers.
Chris: I couldn’t name my favorite movie, but I do think that Les Blank’s film on Leon Russell, A Poem is a Naked Person, which premiered at SXSW, is the greatest rock and roll movie ever made.
This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to www.sxsw.com!