Cohen’s “Playing to the Camera” documents the evolution of filmed musical performance

book-cover-playing-to-the-cameraThomas F. Cohen‘s Playing to the Camera: Musicians and Musical Performance in Documentary Cinema analyzes the way documentary footage treats the musical performance, and goes far deeper into the subject matter than most contemporary musical studies. While those books — at best — gloss over the possibilities offered by deep analysis, Cohen delves deeply into the musical performance film. Playing to the Camera offers up the first scholarly dissection of musical performance in documentary film. That particular phrasing is important, as musical performance in film could be an encyclopedia’s worth of books.

Cohen’s method of approach is fairly straightforward. Utilizing a series of films, starting with Jazz On A Summer’s Day and working through some obscure video works, the author traces the way these films evolve. It’s intriguing, as it seems that film starts out less interested in the actual performances and more with using the music as a soundtrack to visuals that are evocative, and then the musical performance itself evolves into something worth capturing on film.

It’s that development of performance image that really makes Playing to the Camera such a fascinating book. The idea that seeing can be a distraction from hearing versus the possibility of image augmenting what is heard is Cohen’s through-line. Whether it be Jimi Hendrix’s change from guitar-burning voodoo man in Monterey Pop to stock-still guitar god in Woodstock or the way Isaac Stern considers facial expression reflective of “passion” in From Mao to Mozart, the visual is inexorably tied to the aural.


Now, whether that’s a good or bad thing remains for the reader to decide. However, Cohen certainly provides a plethora of opinions on each side of the argument in Playing to the Camera. Either opinion could be ably debated using this book, and I’m certain that this will become a valuable text for film and music scholars for years to come.