various Alstons: Family Name

various Alstons
Family Name

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE line--was it with Saturday Night Fever? The Big Chill? Fast Times at Ridgemont High?--movie soundtracks stopped being incidental musical accompaniment to films and began to assume a role as important marketing tools. These days it's rare to find a commercially available soundtrack that functions as more than an advertisement or product tie-in to help generate interest or income. Family Name, then, is a real anomaly in a time when it can seem like crappy movies get made primarily to sell records.

Like any considered soundtrack, Family Name works as an auxiliary to the documentary it comes with; it opens new understandings of the film and deepens meanings already gained. A recent winner at Sundance, the film traces the search of director Macky Alston--a young, white New Yorker--back to his roots in Chatham County, North Carolina, for evidence of his slave-owning ancestors, the slaves they owned, and possible family links between the whites and blacks who share the Alston name. The film is fascinating and moving despite its first-time filmmaker/narrator, who is at times overwrought with unconvincing white guilt. Family Name works, as with all good documentaries, because it lets real people speak for themselves.

The soundtrack album features songs performed by various Alstons: black and white, Northern transplants and Southern traditionalists. There's a Hank Williams song performed by the director's father, a preacher, former civil-rights activist, and part-time country singer who moved north in the '60s. There's a Southern black-gospel song done by the Alston-Boldin Family and Friends Choir. And there's an original song offered by Fred Alston, an African American classical musician born in North Carolina who now lives in Manhattan, one block from Macky. As eloquent as the film's cinematic portrayal, the soundtrack weaves a musical fabric of the Alston clan--and by extension, the entire United States. Between Charlotte Blake Alston's howling gospel blues and Wallace Alston's blue yodel, we become acquainted with our musical--and, it turns out, genealogical--roots.

Family Name is currently in limited theatrical release, and will air nationally on PBS next spring

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