"Wednesday, 9 p.m. on WFYI (Channel 20)
Most people under 50 learn the name Les Paul in connection with a model of guitar long before they discover the musician who gave the instrument its identity. And that’s wrong. But whether or not you know of the man and his work, the American Masters documentary Les Paul: Chasing Sound is absolutely worth watching. It’s 90 minutes of pure joy.
Paul is the inventor of multitrack recording and the man who popularized the solid-body electric guitar. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Inventors Hall of Fame, and in 2005 received a lifetime achievement award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Paul McCartney is shown telling Paul that in the earliest days of the Beatles, the band covered the Les Paul/Mary Ford hit “How High the Moon.”
He’s performed with seemingly everyone — Art Tatum, the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Chet Atkins, B.B. King — and, at 92, he’s still gigging weekly at a New York City nightclub. Seeing clips of his recent concerts is a treat; watching old footage of him playing “The Tiger Rag” as his fingers race around the neck of the guitar, or hearing the astonishing, unrivaled fretwork of “Lover” is to be a witness to genius. (And his rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana”? Astounding.)
A portion of Chasing Sound takes place during an interview where Paul tells stories and eats pie — and that’s exactly what the show feels like: a big ol’ slice of pie. Rather than solemn narration, his story is told through music, anecdotes and guitars. And while the film covers the negatives — the car accident that nearly required Paul to have an arm amputated, the way rock ’n’ roll killed his career in the 1960s or his divorce from Ford — it’s the positives that get the attention. As it should be.