Eric Simonson’s new documentary Studs Terkel: Listening to America gives itself an extraordinary task: summarize and assign meaning to Terkel’s long life and wide-ranging work in just 40 minutes. The constraints against Simonson are considerable – Terkel, who died in 2008 at age 96, seemed to live multiple lives – but the filmmaker successfully shows how Terkel’s enthusiasm for new media, interviewing skills and passion for social issues made him an enduring figure in American journalism and nonfiction.
The documentary (which HBO will air on May 15 and 24) depicts Terkel as genuinely enthralled with television and radio, in part because of their ability to vividly answer one question: What was it like to be an American in the twentieth century?
That was the question Terkel spent his career answering. In the film’s narrative, Terkel’s role as “our chief listener” came about by happenstance. As he explains, an unnamed listener of his radio program called him after an interview to encourage him to spend more air time with guests. As for his writing career, Andre Schiffrin, the head of publishing at Pantheon Books who would go on to found The New Press, acted on the advice of a friend and asked Terkel to write a book about Chicago. After Division Street was published in 1967, Schriffin asked him to do a book on the Great Depression. Hard Times was followed by Working, about the relationship between people and their work. Throughout the long arc of his career Terkel dedicated himself to revealing the wisdom of others.
Using audio interviews, the documentary makes clear Terkel’s formidable interviewing skills. His conversations with James Baldwin (who Terkel affectionately calls ‘Jim’), Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marlon Brando are all featured, and in each Terkel probes the nature of the men and their work. (To Brando: “What is the difficulty of finding out who you are?”) Sydney Lewis, Terkel’s longtime colleague at Chicago’s WFMT radio station, explains that Terkel’s skill was not only in revealing the interviewee to the audience, but “revealing themselves to themselves.”
Explaining the significance of Terkel’s interviews is Studs Terkel’s chief achievement. Simonson shifts the focus away from celebrities, veteran interviewees all, and explains how Terkel did the work of bearing witness to lives presumably unexamined. Peggy Terry, a woman featured in Hard Times, explains, “I’m amazed that anyone could care what happened to me, but Studs did such a wonderful job that it gives me a sense of who I am and who I was and my relationship with other people in this country.”
Terkel believed in the power of his interviewees’ subjective experiences and their native intelligence; at his best, he made people aware of and proud of that power. Today, as we struggle to define who are “real Americans,” Terkel’s work is as relevant and urgent as ever.
But the film does little to capture anything other than the prevailing idea of Terkel – the congenial, rabble-rousing oral historian always on the right side of history. There he is decked out in his ubiquitous red socks and checkered shirt, shooting the breeze in a liquor store chewing on a cigar, or holding forth at a roundtable discussion about Spiro Agnew with steelworkers and homemakers, supremely avuncular with his hoarse staccato laugh. There is no iconoclasm here, although Simonson – who last interviewed Terkel for the documentary just six months before his death – has said the most difficult aspect of making the film was capturing Terkel’s complexity. Shouldn’t that be every biographer’s task?
Is this compelling portrait completely accurate? I don’t know. It’s not that Terkel has an aversion to self-reflection or that Simonson lacks the ability to tease insights from those offering testimonials about the man. The problem is that the film deals with Terkel as almost a caricature – someone who represented certain ideals for so long that he became the embodiment of those ideals, and nothing more.
In the film’s most fascinating segment, Terkel is asked about being blacklisted in 1952 for signing various liberal petitions, purportedly with communist origins, and losing his popular drama Studs’ Place, which was a prime example of the intimate and unscripted “Chicago School” of television and broadcast journalism from 1949 to 1952. Terkel had the opportunity to repent, to say publicly that he was dumb and duped by communist agents. He refused to do so, and for years people would tell him how heroic he was for standing up to bullying McCarthy-era tactics. “The fact is my ego was at stake,” he explains. “Whattaya mean dumb? Whattaya mean stupid? Whattaya mean duped? It was my vanity, my ego.” The scene reveals Terkel as more human than hero. One wonders if this is the complexity that Simonson struggled with, or simply a moment of modesty.
There are notable omissions. Though Terkel’s son Dan is interviewed, his 60-year marriage to Ida Terkel (about whom he wrote in his autobiography Touch and Go, “She had a certain empathy I lack. And she was more politically active than I,”) is never mentioned. His long love affair with Chicago is framed with exterior shots of the skyline, but never filled in. His style of radio production is variously described using the language of jazz, but his deep feeling for the music – his first book was called Giants of Jazz; Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” at his going-away party before he went into the Air Force in 1942 – is never discussed. Neither are his involvement in the civil rights movement or his career as a sportscaster. (Nor his occasional contributions to this magazine, but no surprise there.)
Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Kogan writes, “People see in Studs what they would like to see in themselves.” The film proceeds from this idea: Terkel as a promise fulfilled, a power harnessed and a life lived. He becomes a screen onto which we project our better nature. As a primer, the film works. But is Simonson’s portrait correct? It seems both true and inadequate. Or did the filmmaker run into, as Terkel once said, “the difficulty of finding out who you are”?