Unboxing the Silents: Moana with Sound

Here’s a fun one! After the success of his groundbreaking docufiction Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty signed a deal with Paramount and then departed with his family to Samoa to once again capture a disappearing culture on film.

Moana was released in 1926, didn’t do so well at the box office and sat forgotten for years. Then in the 1970s, Flaherty’s daughter, Monica, decided to return to Samoa to capture the sounds she remembered as a little girl. She was able to assemble sounds, traditional music and dialogue into a new soundtrack for the film. Again, Moana struggled to find its audience but it has finally been restored and released for all to see.

(Thanks to Kino Lorber for the advance review copy!)

Wait, a silent film with a synchronized soundtrack? Isn’t this what Chaplin did when he butchered The Gold Rush?

While Monica Flaherty and Charlie Chaplin had the same goals in adding sound to silent films (make the movies more accessible to modern viewers and facilitate a revival) their approaches could not be more different.

While Chaplin hacked his film to bits, rearranging and deleting willy-nilly, Flaherty showed the utmost respect for her father’s work. Every intertitle is there and nothing was cut for the sake of the new soundtrack. Silent movie fans can buy with confidence; this is the real Moana. It’s still a silent movie. It’s just a silent movie with a unique soundtrack.

The Soundtrack

Like most people, I think I was a bit nervous about the soundtrack. Would it unbalance the film? Monica Flaherty lavished time and attention on the project. Her plan was to recreate the sounds that she remembered from accompanying her parents to Samoa as a small child. She succeeds because she does not overplay her hand. The soundtrack is lush, rich and natural. She synchronized dialogue to fit what the characters of Moana originally said. She sought out the actual songs that were played. It was an epic endeavor but it paid off.

Extras

Moana with Sound comes with Flaherty family home movies, an interview with Frances Flaherty, Robert Flaherty’s 1925 experiment with the “city symphony” genre and a 40 minute presentation detailing how the film was made and preserved.

This last feature is an absolutely fascinating look into the complicated and frustrating world of film restoration and preservation. Rotted prints, apathetic studios, the hunt for better footage… It’s all there. Anyone who thinks silent film preservation is easy will be in for a surprise.

Restoration

Image via Kino Lorber
Image via Kino Lorber

It looks amazing. The picture is lovely and crisp. All the hard work of generations of film historians and preservationists paid off lavishly.

Buy? Yes, if you have any interest at all in Flaherty’s famed docufiction or if you are intrigued with the story of its soundtrack, you will want to add this release to your collection. Moana has never looked better and both film and soundtrack remain a family affair.

Availability: Moana with Sound will be released on DVD and Bluray on December 8, 2015.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this film for free for the purpose of reviewing it on my blog. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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