Wednesday, October 12, 2011

One sour note in "Prohibition"

Ken Burns' "Prohibition" on PBS isn't about music, obviously, but music helps tell its story. Church hymns capture the temperance movement's rock-ribbed resolve. Wynton Marsalis and his band keep the party rolling for revelers in clubs and speakeasies. One choice of music bothers me, though.

The booze-fueled business boom for gangsters is one of the documentary's main story lines. A chapter titled "The Goons" describes criminal action in Chicago and other big cities. It tells about crooks who aren't well-known today, such as the Bernstein brothers and the Fleishers, descendants of Jews from eastern Europe. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, a piano and orchestra rip through the Concerto in F by George Gershwin -- a descendant of Jews from eastern Europe.

"Prohibition" is sweeping and thought-provoking. It's well worth 5 1/2 hours of your time. But that one conjunction of story, music and heritage grates on me, and I'm still trying to figure out why.

After all, it was probably just a coincidence. Gershwin and his background aren't mentioned. In the part of the concerto we hear, the pianist lets fly with a pounding bass line. That could've struck a producer or music consultant as a perfect match for mobsters' strong-arm tactics. But to me, it rings hollow. Gershwin's music is one of the most uplifting examples of how immigrants have defined this country's spirit and flavor; the mob's Bernsteins and Fleishers definitely are not. Should Gershwin supply the soundtrack for the goons?