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'This Ain't No Mouse Music!' plays a tired tune

'This Ain't No Mouse Music!' plays a tired tune
Blues musician Mance Lipscomb, left, and Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz circa 1968.

Just exactly what is this mouse music that the documentary "This Ain't No Mouse Music!" speaks of? On multiple occasions, the film circles back to that nagging question without reaching any conclusion. What it ain't, though, is music put out since 1960 by Chris Strachwitz and his cult independent label Arhoolie Records.

Strachwitz has been excavating indigenous music and recordings by unsung musical heroes whose work languished while they eked out a living as cotton pickers, day laborers at mercantile stores or janitors. Strachwitz has been recording these musicians in unrehearsed club or outdoor sessions instead of the conventional studio, releasing those recordings alongside reissues of lost records from the 1920s and '30s.

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Filmmakers Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon gloss over Strachwitz's dubious business dealings (starting with the oral contracts) along with burning questions, such as how he handled street noises during open-air recording sessions and whether his direction of the musicians hinders the recordings' authenticity.

Although his discoveries are of cultural and historical import, the film never establishes their musical significance. Instead, the narrative of Strachwitz as preserver of obscure music just repeats like a broken record with the introduction of each region, genre and musician. At times the film also feels simply dated, featuring a signing at Tower Records, though the store shuttered its brick-and-mortar operations eight years ago, as well as a closing scene at Arhoolie's 50th anniversary celebration that is four years old.

"This Ain't No Mouse Music!"

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.

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