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‘Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music’ Review: Wish You Were There

The writer and performer Taylor Mac spent the first half of the 2010s developing an epic project, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” that covered 240 years’ worth of American history. Mac would perform large excerpts at concerts, then on Oct. 8-9, 2016, did the whole caboodle as an ultramarathon of 246 songs. The show took over St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn, in a 24-hour-long “radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice” that amounted to a transcendent artistic and political gesture. (Full disclosure: I was there.)

Now, an HBO documentary by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet,” “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”) offers a necessarily abridged look at Mac’s towering achievement, which showcased an incredible range as an interpreter, a theatrical gusto and a mischievous, often biting humor. Key collaborators like the costume designer Machine Dazzle and the makeup artist Anastasia Durasova also explain what went into their many painstakingly intricate creations.

But there is some ambiguity: The film is structured as if it were documenting the St. Ann’s happening, including time stamps, but some of the performance footage actually is from Los Angeles. The doc also does not illuminate how Mac dealt with the marathon’s grueling physical demands, or describe the surreal ambience that set over the Brooklyn venue as the hours ticked by and sleep deprivation set in. We do see some of the audience participation, which was an integral part of the show, but we don’t hear from attendees. It’s a loss, because the event was, in essence, about the making of community through the ages but also through one day and night.

Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. Watch on Max.

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