Give Me the Banjo, an endearing and warm documentary about a quaint and misunderstood instrument, explores that pot-holed past with inspired though tiresome passion. It takes a basic route through the history of the banjo from its beginnings with African-American musicians through to its introduction to the limelight with famous folk singers and country-fried songsters, peppering in clips of performances and interviews with famous bluegrass musicians throughout.
Purveyors of the five-stringed banjo are acutely aware of and somewhat annoyed by the instrument's public image as a dingy and provincial doo-hickey upon which only tobacco-chewing cowboys play. But Give Me the Banjo reveals that the instrument is more expressive and playful than its more famous brother, the guitar (self-serious and overrated in the eyes of a good deal of "banjoists").
The documentary, originally aired on PBS as a special, is a 90 minute love song. The first 45 minutes does a terrific job of doling out the relevant historical information surrounding the banjo. It avoids trivialities and details that are so abstruse they would only bog down the tale in unnecessary specificity. Give Me the Banjo should be commended, too, on its ability to weave together such a cohesive narrative even amidst the very mythological nature and fuzzy recollection surrounding the banjo's history. Many stories about the banjo whittle down to folklore about accidental discoveries and he-said, she-said accounts about the true origin of something or other's name. The grandest and most exciting conclusion to be drawn is that every major era in American history has with it a significant banjo milestone.
The remaining 45 minutes, though, are largely lost on the history buff and are instead intended for the real banjo enthusiast. This latter half is an amalgam of banjo performances and mostly dull and uninteresting interviews — the filmmakers make pit stops to the homes of the most famous banjoists so as to keep tabs on their bone fide star power. I get it, Pete Seeger, you were immensely influential during the Civil Rights Era, and no one gives you credit for it. Your will shall not be lost, good sir.
The movie you’re in, on the other hand, should be remade by Michael Moore — even if that movie includes 15 minutes of Moore canvassing record labels for pushing unscrupulous record contracts.