There is a major new documentary about the Vietnam War that is about to be broadcast on TV in the US. It is called The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick.
Burns and Novick have made some very successful documentaries together, but they are not experts on Vietnamese history, and while experts were consulted during the making of this documentary, I think it will be safe to assume that this documentary will essentially be a documentary about “what the Vietnam War means to a certain segment of the American population.”
That is fine. As long as educated viewers understand what this documentary is, and what its perspective is, then they can appreciate it for what it is.
With that attitude in my mind, last night I watched an extended preview of the series on PBS (it will start showing on September 17). Everything that I saw fit what I expected to see. . . until the topic of the music that is included in the documentary started to be discussed. At that point I realized that even my low expectation for this documentary was not going to be met.
Some of the music for the documentary was composed and performed by “Grammy Award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble.”
Ambient music that will play in the background was created by David Cieri and Doug Wamble, two (superb) musicians who have contributed to other film scores.
And finally, “the series features more than 120 popular songs that define the era, including tracks from The Beatles; Rolling Stones; Bob Dylan; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; The Jimi Hendrix Experience; Simon & Garfunkel; Big Brother & The Holding Company (feat Janis Joplin); B.B. King; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Barry McGuire; Buffalo Springfield; The Byrds; Otis Redding; Santana; Marvin Gaye; Ray Charles; Nina Simone; The Temptations; Booker T. and the M.G.s; Pete Seeger and more.”
In other words, this is a documentary about the “Vietnam” War, but none of the sound in the documentary comes from “Vietnam” or Vietnamese musicians.
Yo-Yo Ma is of course an extremely accomplished musician, but HE’S CHINESE, and the The Silk Road Ensemble is also very CHINESE in the instruments it uses and the style of music it plays.
Hearing that Yo-Yo Ma has composed original music for this documentary reminds me of one of the first Hollywood productions on Vietnam, “China Gate” (see the video above), which starts with. . . (Hollywood-style) Chinese music.
There is an article on this documentary in Vanity Fair that states that “Burns was conscious of avoiding ‘the old tropes and invented tropes’ of Hollywood’s Vietnam.”
The author of that article (David Kamp) clearly didn’t listen to what he was hearing, as this documentary looks like it must completely reproduce what Hollywood has already produced: namely the idea that Chinese music can stand in for “generic traditional Asian music,” and that the only music that was heard in Vietnam during the war was the music of Western musicians.
Even if we accept that this documentary is 100% from an American perspective, I really doubt that the American soldiers who served in Vietnam never heard any Vietnamese music. When they were in taxis or restaurants or bars or shops, could it be possible that there was never a radio playing the songs of Duy Khánh, Chế Linh, Thanh Tuyền, Hoàng Oanh, Hương Lan, etc.?
And how about Trịnh Công Sơn and Khánh Ly?
I can’t believe that the music of South Vietnamese musicians was not part of the “soundtrack” of the Vietnam War. American soldiers might not have known the names of the singers or the songs, but my guess is they must have heard that music, and those sounds must be part of their “soundtrack” of the Vietnam War.
Yo-Yo Ma, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Marvin Gaye are Hollywood’s “soundtrack” of the Vietnam War.
It’s a shame that Burns and Novick did not attempt to move beyond these old worn-out Hollywood tropes.
Doing so would not be difficult. It would be easy to figure out which Vietnamese songs were popular (and blasting from radios) during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Using today’s technology, it would also be easy to get David Cieri and Doug Wamble to work with sampled sounds of 1960s South Vietnamese music and sounds to create a “sonic texture” that would capture something that American soldiers heard and felt, and that goes beyond Hollywood tropes.
And if one needs some “generic Asian music” for the soundtrack, then enlist talented Vietnamese artists who engage with traditional music in contemporary and sophisticated ways, like Ngô Hồng Quang and Nguyên Lê.
They might not be recognizable to American viewers like Yo-Yo Ma is. . . but at least they’re Vietnamese.