Who hasn’t tasted the pleasures, guilty or otherwise, of VH1’s Behind the Music? The long-running show, a juicy mix of tabloid gossip, documentary insight, and unabashed nostalgia, debuted in 1997, a totally different media age. Its original viewers were the first generation to use email, shop online, or download (usually pirated) music. People were willing to sit through episodes of an hour or more, without a pause button, whether they liked the music or not. (Some of the best shows profile the most ridiculous one-hit wonders).
Behind the Music is still on, and you can stream old episodes all day long, pausing every few minutes to check email or social media, stream another video, or download an album in seconds. But with so many distractions, it’s easy to lose the thread of Huey Lewis and the News’ rise to stardom or the thrilling life and times of Ice-T. We need stories like these, but we may need them in a smaller, more self-contained form.
Enter Drawn & Recorded: Modern Myths of Music, an online series that delivers the frisson of Behind the Music in a fraction of the time, with the added bonus of whimsical, high-quality animation and narration by T. Bone Burnett. Now in its fourth season, the award-winning series, directed and hand-drawn by animator Drew Christie for studio Gunpowder & Sky, brings us anecdotes “sometimes hilarious, occasionally tragic, always compelling,” writes Animation Magazine.
Those stories include “Leonard Cohen’s escape from Cuban authorities after being detained under suspicion of espionage” (see the trailer here) and the origins of Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (above), a story we covered in a previous post. Drawn & Recorded has differentiated itself from the aforementioned pop music documentary show not only in its length and aesthetic sensibilities but also in its willingness to venture deeper into music history.
The episode below, for example, features tragic bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, who made modern history when his music traveled into outer space on the Voyager Golden Record. Given their lengths of under five minutes, each Drawn & Recorded must prune its story carefully—there’s no room for meandering or gratuitous repetition. Each of the vignettes promises an “untold story” from music history, and while that may not always be the case, they are each well-told and surprising and often as strange as Christie’s animations and Burnett’s haunted, raspy baritone suggest.
In the episode below, country legend Jimmie Rogers, whose influence “would range from Hank Williams to Louis Armstrong to Bob Dylan,” arrived in Kenya a decade after his death, by way of British missionaries toting a phonograph. The native people became fascinated with the sound of Rogers’ music. They pronounced his name “Chemirocha,” a word that came to mean “anything new and different.” This became a song called “Chemirocha,” about a half-man/half-antelope god.
It’s a fascinatingly odd little tale about cross-cultural contact, one that has little to do with the biography of Jimmie Rogers, and hence might never make it into your standard-issue documentary. But Drawn & Recorded is something else—a handmade artifact that streams digitally, telling stories about musicians famous, infamous, and rarely remembered. Other episodes feature a canny mix of the contemporary, classic, and golden age, including Grimes, David Bowie, the Beatles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, MF Doom, and more. Find them, notes Animation Magazine, “on the Network, available on DirecTV, DirecTV Now and AT&T U-verse” or find scattered episodes on Vimeo.