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The Great Flood

The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in American history. In the spring of 1927, the river broke out of its earthen embankments in 145 places and inundated 27,000 square miles. Part of its legacy was the forced exodus of displaced sharecroppers, who left plantation life and migrated to Northern cities, adapting to an industrial society with its own set of challenges.

Musically, the Great Migration fueled the evolution of acoustic blues to electric blues bands that thrived in cities like Memphis, Detroit and Chicago becoming the wellspring for R&B and rock as well as developing jazz styles.

THE GREAT FLOOD is a collaboration between filmmaker and multimedia artist Bill Morrison and guitarist and composer Bill Frisell inspired by the 1927 catastrophe.

In the spring of 2011, as the Mississippi River was again flooding to levels not seen since 1927, Frisell, Morrison, and the band traveled together from New Orleans, through Vicksburg, Clarksdale, Memphis, Davenport, Iowa, St. Louis and on up to Chicago.

For the film, Morrison scoured film archives, including the Fox Movietone Newsfilm Library and the National archives, for footage of the Mississippi River Flood. All film documenting this catastrophe was shot on volatile nitrate stock, and what footage remains is pock marked and partially deteriorated. The degraded filmstock figures prominently in Morrison's aesthetic with distorted images suggesting different planes of reality in the story-those lived, dreamt, or remembered.

For the score, Frisell has drawn upon his wide musical palette informed by elements of American roots music, but refracted through his uniquely evocative approach that highlights essential qualities of his thematic focus. Playing guitar, Frisell is joined by Tony Scherr on bass, Kenny Wollesen on drums and Ron Miles on trumpet.

In THE GREAT FLOOD, the bubbles and washes of decaying footage is associated with the destructive force of rising water, the filmstock seeming to have been bathed in the same water as the images depicted on it. These layers of visual information, paired with Frisell's music, become contemporary again. We see the images through a prism of history, but one that dances with the sound of modern music.

'Critic's Pick! Visual poetry, sublime' -The New York Times

'A knockout! -Kenneth Turan, LA Times

'Archival wizard Bill Morrison's film finds lyricism in disaster' -The Wall Street Journal

'This is cinema as art, and a classic.' -LA Weekly

'Fascinating! Required viewing in U.S. history classes throughout the country.' -The Daily Beast

'Hypnotic, playful, wildly evocative...Masterfully assembled; a terrific achievement.' -LA Times

'Four stars! [Conveys] all the terror and pity that modern disaster footage imparts [and causes] its subject to breathe anew. -Time Out New York

'A history lesson so vividly immediate as to resemble a ghostly conjuration.' -The L Magazine

'A remarkable work!' -The Seattle Times

'[An] extraordinary confluence of talents and subject-matter.' -The Telegraph

'[THE GREAT FLOOD] would be a memorable drama even played in total silence. In closeup, it shows trickling streams and rain on cotton plants swelling into torrents; cigar-toting politicians gesticulate reassuringly, and the wealthy making dignified retreats while the impoverished cling to the remains of shacks. Guitarist Bill Frisell's live soundtrack of howling blues chords, Thelonious Monk hooks, country-swing and Old Man River quotes would make a fine concert without a film, too. Put the two together [and] the result moves up another creative and emotional level.' -The Guardian

'A lovely, wordless documentary.' -The New York Times

'Enthralling!' -Now Toronto


Main credits

Morrison, Bill (film director)
Frisell, Bill (composer)
Frisell, Bill (performer)
Oyama, Phyllis (film producer)

Other credits

Musicians: Bill Frisell (guitar), Ron Miles (trumpet), Tony Scherr (bass, guitar), Kenny Wollesen (drums, vibes).

Docuseek2 subjects

Distributor subjects

African American Studies
American Studies
Black and White
Cinema Studies
Economic Sociology
Film History
History (U.S.)
Media Studies
Race and Racism


The Great Flood; Bill Morrison; Bill Frisell; 'Mississippi River Flood of 1927'; Mississippi River; music; found footage; archive; Tony Scherr ; Kenny Wollesen ; Ron Miles; "The Great Flood"; Icarus Films; Mississippi delta; blues; ,doc,env; history; science; sociss