May 13, 2014

"The Broken Circle Breakdown": A Belgian Bluegrass Music Movie


Bluegrass music is a form of American Roots music. It is inspired by the music of Appalachia and is essentially Irish, Scottish,Welsh and English, brought to the USA by immigrants during the 18th century although over the years other elements have been added to it as music,like language, is dynamic.

It is one of my favourite branches of Roots Music. 

Now it has been adopted by Belgium and an Academy Award nominated movie has been made.

It seems music can transcend all national and political barriers. We can see this with all kinds of music almost everywhere.

My first exposure to Bluegrass  happened many years ago and my favourite Bluegrass song is
"Callin' Baton Rouge" here performed by New Grass Revival. I don't know if this group still exists but I still listen to this CD which I bought many years ago.

There are many other excellent Bluegrass bands out there too.


One of cinema’s great pleasures is opening your eyes to unknown worlds. And who knew there was a thriving bluegrass music scene in Belgium? That’s a revelation from one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for best foreign language film, The Broken Circle Breakdown
Well, maybe not a thriving bluegrass community, the film’s director Felix van Groeningen concedes.

“I think there are four bands and when they play there’s usually more people on the stage than in the crowd,” he says.

“But like everything, you don’t know that it’s out there until you dive into it. And then you see that there is throughout Europe a small community. But it’s presented a little more hipper in the movie than it is in real life.”

The success of the film has pushed the genre, though. The band assembled for the film, adapted from the stage play of the same name by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, has begun touring Belgium and is on its third tour, selling out 30 concerts.

“I have to say with the whole movie it’s been crazy how people have embraced this music,” van Groeningen says.

The band, in one sense, has been a handy distraction for the director because, on paper, The Broken Circle Breakdown is not the kind of film to bring audi­ences through the door.
Its central theme is loss, the most heartbreaking kind, and its chronology is muddled. And it is melodramatic.

Yet the chemistry between the two lead characters — tattooist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who falls in love with banjo player Didier (the play’s writer, Heldenbergh) — and the savvy collection of old-time country classics and originals elevates the movie. Nevertheless, without spoiling the key story points, I had to ask van Groeningen if he encountered any doubts in adapting the film.

“It was never told to me, ‘no’, because the people who were involved had seen the play and knew it was working, so there had to be a way for the film to work too,” he replies.

His producer was keen to hide key plot points in the trailer and they asked Belgian journalists not to mention one key narrative strand “because we were really afraid it would turn people off”.

“And it would turn people off but you can’t really control it,” he adds. “On the page it’s a weird story but it works.

“It’s a love story. That’s how we sold it. The US trailer is just the music and people but there’s also no dialogue so people wouldn’t even know it was a foreign film.
“Whatever works, you know. You’ve got to get people to see the film and if they like it they’ll talk about it.

“And what we noticed was if we showed it enough, it had the potential to become a hit film because it would stick with people and they’d talk about it and go and send other people to see it.”
And so it was. 

The Broken Circle Breakdown was a commercial hit in its homeland and in neighbouring France. It was a darling of the film festival circuit, playing here last year at the Sydney Film Festival, and ultimately grabbing the Oscar nomination earlier this year.

The 36-year-old concedes he lost perspective on whether an audience would embrace the story. “At some point I just didn’t know any more,” he admits.
But the stage play touched him so deeply it gave him the energy to dive into it.
“It was an amazing experience, just amazing,” he recalls.
“I’ve never had something that was so sad and yet beautiful at the same time.”

Even so, he doubted the play could be adapted to film. The bluegrass thing seemed a roadblock and the play was too simple structurally. Essentially two characters and the bluegrass band told their stories to the audience and it played with its chronology — not very cinematic.

Yet the play continued to reverberate with the director.
“It was just everything,” he recalls. “You see a beautiful couple. Everything just fitted. They play that music; I didn’t know that music and it starts getting to you.
“Then you ask why that music because on every level it’s part of the story, the lyrics of the songs are part of their journey, the way the movie soothes, helps you digest it all.
“It all fitted together at some point and led up to something very harsh and dark and yet true and very cathartic,” he adds.

“I came out of that theatre and realised it made me love life more than before.” Van Groeningen took up the challenge, despite the playwright telling him he would have to adapt the play by himself.
“It’s not easy, but isn’t that why you make films, to do something that seems impossible in a way?”

The Broken Circle Breakdown is van Groeningen’s fourth feature film. He notes he has been “lucky” and is happy to fend off overtures to make movies in the US, including an incomprehensible offer to direct an adaptation of a video game.

He is one of the few who can sustain a living within the Belgian film industry, which is divided into the French-speaking part (best known for producing brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, directors of Rosetta, The Son and The Kid with a Bike), and the Flemish-speaking part.

“As with everything in the country, it’s much divided,” van Groeningen says. “We know each other, we look at each other but it’s a very different kind of industry because the language is so, so different. We share a lot in humour or general cultural view, I would say. But it doesn’t reflect in our art.”

But he says the Flanders side of the industry has been flourishing lately, a fact that seems to surprise him. “We’re doing a lot of things and people watch them, more than in the French-speaking part. And they’ve been finding their way into the world, and that’s crazy.”


With thanks to The Australian 

The Birthplace Of Country Music