This month Facets Video—the DVD-releasing arm of Facets Multimedia—launches a new series of Chicago-centric documentaries, all made between the 1960s and the 1980s and restored courtesy of grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. “Reel Chicago” will include Raul Zaritsky and Linda Williams’s Maxwell Street Blues (1981), about the musicians who shaped the city’s electric-blues sound as they performed in the legendary open-air market; Tom Palazzolo’s Chicago, which collects key short works by the veteran city chronicler; The Films of Gordon Weisenborn, a quartet of half-hour educational films by the little-known director; and The People vs. Paul Crump (1965), a profile of the death-row inmate turned novelist that was one of the first films by director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection).
I haven’t seen these titles, but I wonder if any of them will seem as quintessential to this city of ethnic neighborhoods as the inaugural release, The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago. Directed by Jill Godmilow (What Farocki Taught) and filmed over the bicentennial year of 1976, this one-hour film looks at four Serbian-American brothers—Eli, Adam, Marko, and Ted Popovich—who moved to the city in the 1920s, partly for jobs in the steel industry but also because Chicago would be a good travel hub for their part-time folk band, the Yugoslav Tamburica Orchestra. Godmilow captures the famous band reeling and regrouping after the sudden death of Marko, the youngest, at age 60; the surviving brothers recognize that the music and culture they love could be slipping away with their generation. In this context the movie is even more poignant 35 years later, when all the brothers are gone and their traditional songs have receded even further into the past.
For the Popoviches, the music and dance brought over from the old country both cemented their family bonds and helped relieve the grinding stress of their working-class existence. Nikola Popovich, the family patriarch, immigrated to the U.S. in 1902 and supported his ever-growing brood—ultimately, five boys and five girls—by working 12-hour days mining coal, copper, and silver. As Marco Trbovich, one of his grandchildren, explains in the film, the tamburicas would always come out after dinner, and the Popovich children grew up steeped in Serbian folk music, which they would hand down to their own offspring. Trbovich remembers a childhood of close-knit cousins and weekly family gatherings, and in one scene Godmilow shows this third generation, clad in their gaudy 70s fashions, joining hands to dance some of the old steps in someone’s living room. One of the cousins, unidentified in the film, explains that when she was a child she identified as Serbian, not American, and when she met her future husband, another Serb, she was attracted by his strong ethnicity.
But even as Godmilow records this stubborn adherence to the tribe, she notes the power of time and assimilation. When Trbovich recalls his uncles’ rough lives as steel workers in the 1920s, Godmilow inserts black-and-white photos of cheapjack housing on the south side, then cuts to the present day as one of their neighbors pushes a lawn mower across the front lawn of a ranch-style home, its garage door decorated with a bicentennial motif. At a dinner honoring the band’s 50th anniversary, the master of ceremonies reads an official citation from President Gerald Ford. For the second generation the apple may not have fallen far from the tree—quizzed by the filmmaker, lead singer Ted Popovich reports that he lives at 111 Tenth Avenue East and drives a beer truck for a living. But for the third generation things are different: Marco Trbovich, for instance, lives in Boston, where he moved to find work as a political consultant. At one point Godmilow pictures an article from a Serbian newspaper headlined, “The Melting Pot Theory Is Dead,” yet for each successive generation of Popoviches Serbia becomes more an abstraction than a reality.
The central drama of The Popovich Brothers is the death of Marko, who was felled by a heart attack in March 1976, soon after the 50th anniversary celebration. This so affected Ted that he announced his retirement from the band. “You know about as much about the future of the Popovich Brothers as I do,” his brother Adam tells Godmilow. “I know Ted’s whole life has been singing, and it would be a tragedy if he just had to stop singing, just like that.” Yet he too considers Marko nearly irreplaceable as both a vocalist and an instrumentalist. Because the band has already committed to a show in Milwaukee with a local choir, Adam takes it upon himself to rehearse the young singers for the show. “In my generation it wasn’t very hard to tell a person what you feel in this song,” he explains in voice-over, while onscreen he conducts the young Serbian-Americans in a swelling ballad. “It’s a little bit harder now. They hear that many American songs—more than a hundred to one you’re listening to rock music and different kinds of music all day long. And the kids come down once a week. And still, it’s a magnificent thing that they’re doing that.”
For a DVD extra, Godmilow recently produced a 12-minute video, The Music Goes On and On, in which director Jerry Hughes visits with a graying Marco Trbovich, now vice president of a communications consulting firm and working in Pittsburgh. The de facto narrator of the earlier film, he now sings and plays brac with the Orkestra Srpski Sinovi, a five-piece band he formed to keep Serbian music alive, and they perform some of their repertoire. Many of them are younger than Trbovich, and when Hughes goes down the line asking them about themselves, their occupations are a far cry from copper mining: computer scientist, civil engineer, music teacher, information technology salesman. Their gigs are infrequent, nothing like the Popovich Brothers’ weekly shows at the local Serbian hall, but Trbovich relishes the chance to revisit his roots and make the music a tangible thing in his children’s lives.
Only once does he mention the civil war in Yugoslavia, noting that it helped enlarge the Serbian community in Pittsburgh. Yet this bloody conflict becomes the inevitable and haunting subtext of The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago. Fifteen years after the movie was shot, the same ethnic pride that produced such beautiful music in Chicago turned cancerous in Europe, as a wave of Serbian nationalism in the former Yugoslavia inspired policies of ethnic cleansing and resulted in massacres of Croatian civilians and rape camps that targeted Muslim women. Godmilow opens her movie with the young Trbovich, in voice-over, quoting an old Serbian saying that translates as “Those who sing know no evil.” If that’s the case, there can’t be any pursuit nobler than keeping a song alive.
E-mail J.R. Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE POPOVICH BROTHERS OF SOUTH CHICAGO ★★
Directed by Jill Godmilow