The 78 Project is an odd duck of a documentary. The project began as a webseries, but its popularity led to the creation of the current doc. The feature doesn’t include any footage from the webseries, but from what I understand, it follows the same process: documentarians Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright have a Presta portable record maker, a product of the late 1930s and early 1940s which records at 78 rpm (thus the title), and they travel across the nation to record artists. Each artist gets to pick the location, usually somewhere in or around their home (not in a recording studio – it’s a portable record cutter, after all) and play a single public domain song in a single take.
It’s a great idea, and there are some really touching reactions from artists, but it does feel like the doc is pulling a little too heavily from its webseries roots (again, I have not seen the webseries, so this is an educated guess). It’s a very raw bit of filmmaking, which plays well into the sound created by the Presta recorder and the folksy, old fashioned tone of the film, but what feels like intentional lack of artifice has led to unintentional lack of art. There’s a lot audiences are forced to infer about why the filmmakers are doing what they’re doing and what it means to the performers. I enjoyed the doc, but it’s more about enjoying the music, not the filmmaking.