Greg MacGillivray's documentary is a speedy sprint through the history of this nation’s musical idioms. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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Movie review

“America’s Musical Journey” is a speedy sprint through the history of this nation’s musical idioms.

In a compact 40 minutes,  the picture, now showing in 3D at the Pacific Science Center’s Boeing IMAX Theater, takes the audience on a guided cross-country journey, with the briefest of pauses in Seattle (hello, Space Needle).

Two musical icons, Louis Armstrong and Elvis, serve as touchstones of the movie’s narrative structure created by director Greg MacGillivray, a prolific maker of IMAX documentaries.

Armstrong’s rise to worldwide prominence is tracked from New Orleans, where he was born in poverty, to Chicago, where he moved during the Great Migration of 6 million African Americans from the South to the North during the early 20th century. Along the way, which included time spent as a musician aboard New Orleans river boats, he became a founding figure in the birth of jazz.

That history is sketched by the movie’s tour guide, singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc, who reveres Armstrong and sings his idol’s signature “What a Wonderful World” in a show-stopping concert segment near the end.

Blues, gospel, country (with its roots, the movie notes, in Scotland, Ireland and Africa) and soul music all are acknowledged and honored by Blacc and narrator Morgan Freeman.

Elvis enters the story midway through, as Blacc visits Graceland. The movie explains how Elvis used African-American rhythm and blues as a launching pad to essentially invent rock ’n’ roll and broaden the appeal of that music to the white mass audience.

Hip-hop gets its moment with a breakdancing sequence, and when the picture moves to Miami, salsa dancers take center stage, working their mojo to Gloria Estefan’s hit “Conga.” Estefan and her husband, Emilio, are briefly interviewed by Blacc.

The mood throughout is almost relentlessly upbeat with occasional touches of frivolity. Skydiving Elvis impersonators make the scene to the accompaniment of “Jailhouse Rock.”

The positivity that runs through “America’s Musical Journey” is wedded to an underlying celebration of the country’s diversity. Blacc, the son of Panamanian parents, and the Cuban-born Estefans are symbolic of that.

“America’s cultural diversity has shaped all our songwriters,” Freeman declares. “Centuries of immigration have given us a wonderful gift.

“When we share a song we love with other people, it brings us closer. Every kind of music has that power.

“People came here from many different places, each bringing a different note.”

With immigration such a hot-button issue today, the movie leaves no doubt where it stands in that crucial debate.


★★★ “America’s Musical Journey,” a documentary directed by Greg MacGillivray. 40 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Opens Sept. 7 at the Boeing IMAX Theater, Pacific Science Center.