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Originally published Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 3:06 PM

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An artful, disquieting look at ‘The Great Flood’

A 3.5-star review of “The Great Flood,” soundtracked by the masterful Bill Frisell. It uses archival footage to tell the story of the disastrous Mississippi River flood of 1927.

Seattle Times jazz critic

Movie Review 3.5 stars

‘The Great Flood,’ a documentary by Bill Morrison featuring the music of Bill Frisell. 80 minutes. Not rated. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.

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The Moore Theatre hosted a sneak preview of this compelling silent film by Bill Morrison just over a year ago. Now, the music played that night by the brilliant, Seattle-based guitarist and composer Bill Frisell’s quartet has become the soundtrack for the final cut, screening at the Grand Illusion.

The soundtrack was not yet linked back then, but I reviewed the movie and the music and I liked them both very much.

I still do, but a second viewing prompted a couple of reservations.

Inspired by John M. Barry’s book “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” the movie compiles rare archival footage of the horrendous 1927 Mississippi River flood that covered 27,000 square miles and displaced more than a million people, many of them black share croppers who subsequently migrated north.

As if this natural disaster were not tragedy enough, political decisions to pre-emptively blow up levees, which disproportionately affected African Americans, exacerbated the damage. Terrifying footage of water ripping through towns, people (and a hapless dog) stranded on the corrugated roofs of white clapboard houses, cars plowing through four feet of water, families being evacuated by row boat and the faces of defeated children tell the tale.

There is no voice-over narration, just the haunting vibration of Frisell’s gorgeously lyrical music (hopefully it will be issued on CD), plus titles that precede each of the film’s 12 segments. As a result, this time I found myself craving more information, particularly maps to illustrate just where Cairo, Hickman, Pine Bluff and Poydras — to name a few towns singled out in the titles — are actually located.

The film feels incomplete in other ways, too. The segment called “politicians,” for example, in which then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and other besuited bigwigs tour the damage, though painfully evoking President George W. Bush’s famously callous “flyover” of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, doesn’t relay much useful information.

Ditto for the jump-cut tour of a Sears Roebuck catalog, which, while surely not intended this way, serves to aestheticize misfortune as something quaintly antique. The physically tattered and scorched stretches of old film and Frisell’s beautiful music contribute to the same effect.

Odd, to complain that an experience is too pleasant. But somehow it feels wrong to enjoy a story about so much suffering.

At least it’s getting told.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or

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