Can an instrument go extinct? That question lies at the heart of Kelsey Hammer-Parks and Nathan M. Emerson’s That Thing/That Sound. Throughout the documentary, the co-directors/co-writers examine how the steel guitar (more on that in a moment) is being phased out. They interview musicians who long for it to be used more regularly, observe how the older generation passes it on to the younger ones, and explore its use in big and small bands.
At the outset, some might ask what exactly a steel guitar is? A steel guitar is “any guitar played by moving a steel bar against plucked strings.” Okay, so that is the “steel” part of the equation. But, those in the know are probably asking, which kind of steel guitar is being discussed? See, there are three kinds of steel guitars: resonator, lap, and pedal.
However, this is not brought up in the film itself, which does cause confusion (presumably more so if one already knows everything just stated). But, it seems the various subjects filmed here are playing either pedal or lap steel. So, for the sake of ease, from here on out, the instrument will simply be referred to as “steel,” as that is all anyone calls it throughout the brief 71-minute runtime.
“Can an instrument go extinct…the steel guitar is being phased out.”
The fact that That Thing/That Sound does not actually explain the instrument or its history (it originated in Hawaii. This is mentioned once.) makes the film feel small, with very low stakes. However, the documentary soars on the strength and sheer enthusiasm of its interviewees. Paul Niehaus, Bruce Bouton, Jay Jackson, and Nikki Brown, among others, speak passionately about steel. They love its versatility and are mad that it has been pigeon-holed to country (thanks a lot Dukes Of Hazzard). One of the musicians discusses how for every one lick that can be done on a traditional guitar, ten can be made on steel. It is evident he is in sheer awe of everything the instrument can do, and the filmmakers translate that reverence so well on screen that the audience is also in awe.
Plus, the score is just dynamite. What sort of film would be about a musical instrument and not put it to good use? There is great joy in seeing and hearing steel being played and practiced. It is a unique and cool sound, and it is no wonder how/why those in the know adore steel so much.
That Thing/That Sound is not so much interested in the history or context of steel guitars. Instead, it is a love letter to a musical instrument that seems to be on its way out. Kelsey Hammer-Parks and Nathan M. Emerson delight in helping keep steel alive, and that adoration is felt in every frame of the film. Plus, the amazing, intelligent, passionate subjects — some of who even offer free lessons just to keep steel around — who are trying with all their might to keep steel relevant are fun to hear from. These elements help gloss over the lack of specificity and context issues.
To learn more about That Thing/That Sound, visit its official website.
"…the score is just dynamite."