SALT LAKE CITY — When Chad Cannon began creating music for “American Factory,” the culture clash at the documentary’s core felt familiar.
The film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and won the festival’s directing award for U.S. documentaries, is coming to Netflix through Barack and Michelle Obama's new production company, Higher Ground Productions, where it will be the company's first release. “American Factory” shows a manufacturing plant’s rebirth near Dayton, Ohio. The plant once belonged to General Motors — which laid off thousands of nearby townspeople when it closed in 2008 — and gets purchased by Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese company. The new owners rehire many of the locals whom GM laid off a decade earlier.
A nice redemption story, right? Not so fast.
Fuyao tries to integrate its Chinese and American workforces, even bringing over hundreds of Chinese workers to the American plant. At one point, the film also follows a group of new American employees as they visit one of the company’s plants in China.
“And they’re seeing how these Chinese factory workers are very militant,” Cannon told the Deseret News. “And in the company’s morning warmups, it feels like they’re in bootcamp — they line up, and they shout off their numbers. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in American plants, at least not at their company.”
Cannon, who grew up in Salt Lake City, served a mission in Japan for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Later on, he also interned at a Japanese industrial plant. The militancy shown in “American Factory” really brought him back. Cannon also runs the Asia / America New Music Institute, a chamber music group that does cultural diplomacy tours throughout Asia. His newest project, for example — the studio album “The Dreams of a Sleeping World” — is an hour-long suite of orchestral music paired with 10 paintings by artist Oscar Ōiwa. (That project comes to the Salt Lake Public Library on May 20.) In many ways, the composer was the ideal person to create the score for “American Factory.”
In a review for IndieWire, Eric Kohn wrote, “‘American Factory’ shifts from an optimistic portrait of a Chinese rescue mission to a dispiriting comedy of errors, like an episode of ‘The Office’ for fans of ‘The World Is Flat.’”
The documentary, Kohn added, “unfolds as a fascinating tragicomedy.”
“I was given a chance to write music that sort of commented on that,” Cannon said. “We tried not to make it too comedic, or else it becomes ridiculous, but the first chapter of the movie is pretty funny, as the American workers are confronted directly with how the Chinese management thinks, and vice versa.”
Not that it’s all funny. The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “The underlying message through the entire documentary is that the American Dream failed in Dayton when GM left … and the false hope offered by Fuyao might be in some ways worse.”
Once it moves past the comedy, “American Factory” chronicles the American workers’ efforts to unionize. Fuyao’s founder/chairman, Cao Dewang, wants to stop the unionizing, and even threatens to leave town if he doesn’t get his way.
Cannon, who got his start in Hollywood working on orchestral scores for “The Hobbit” trilogy, “Godzilla” (2014) and “The Secret Life of Pets,” said the score in “American Factory” happened remarkably quickly. After getting the film’s final cut, Cannon said he had three weeks to deliver the final score.
“And we’re talking an hour of orchestral music,” he explained. “So that’s a lot of pages of notes.”Comment on this story
Luckily, Cannon had a lot of help. He said outsiders often don’t realize how collaborative film scoring really is. From the initial writing to the orchestral transcribing to the recording to the editing and mixing, the process is kind of like, well, a factory.
“We say as film composers, the best film scores are the ones that you don’t even notice,” Cannon said. “We hope that our music is just contributing to tell a story. And we recognize that music is just one part of the story.”
If you go …
What: Chad Cannon's “The Dreams of a Sleeping World” screening
When: May 20, 7 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake City Public Library Auditorium, 210 E. 400 South
How much: Free