The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Thursday, October 16, 2003
THE BLUES: A BELATED REVIEW: Martin Scorsese organized this seven-night series for PBS, inviting a baker's half-dozen of prominent filmmakers to shoot documentaries on some aspect or another of the blues. My quick (if late) reactions:

Feel Like Going Home (Martin Scorsese): The first installment is the least coherent, following a modern blues player (Corey Harris) as he interviews his forerunners in Mississippi and then West Africa. Scorsese's movie doesn't draw any distinctions between the African music of 400 years ago and the African music of today, which is misleading; and it seems to suggest that the blues is the direct linear descendent of African music without any other significant influences, which simply isn't true.

On the plus side, there's a lot of good music and some enjoyable archival footage. Actually, every installment of this series has a lot of good music and footage.

The Soul of a Man (Wim Wenders): Among the critics, this is probably the most roundly abused film in the series. Me, I liked it a lot. These documentaries are personal statements -- Scorsese, Wenders, and Eastwood even slipped in clips from their previous pictures -- and they should be judged that way; not for their willingness to educate us, not for their exhaustiveness as histories, but as personal reactions to the music and the people who created it.

So it's easy to laugh off the framing device of Blind Willie Johnson speaking to us from outer space, easy to write off Wenders' fake silent-movie footage as far too arch. But he's so obviously sincere that it all worked for me. This isn't the story of the music; it's a story about the music -- about how Skip James and J.B. Lenoir were perceived by a filmmaker from another country, another culture, and (in the case of James) another era. Those arty tricks don't distance us from the movie's subject so much as they remind us how distant we already are.

That said, I didn't see the point of alternating James' and Lenoir's songs with cover versions by a bunch of contemporary musicians. A few of the modern performances are spectacular: by Shemekia Copeland, by Cassandra Wilson, by T-Bone Burnett, and by a makeshift trio of Eagle-Eye Cherry, Vernon Reid, and James Blood Ulmer. But most were merely adequate, and a few were pretty bad. Only a couple felt like they were integrated into the film; most seemed like they were there just to add some famous faces and beef up the ratings. And even if that wasn't what Wenders intended, the fact that it looked like he intended it means that at a certain level he failed.

The Road to Memphis (Richard Pearce): A serviceable documentary about Memphis blues, the rise of black radio, the Chitlin Circuit, and the touring lives of B.B. King and Bobby Rush. It suffered a bit from the fact that -- can I confess this? -- I'm no longer a big King fan; whatever his achievements in the past, he's settled into a somewhat generic sound. The thrill of "The Thrill Is Gone" is gone.

On the other hand, I loved the scene where Bobby Rush buys some clothes.

Warming by the Devil's Fire (Charles Burnett): The framing story is dismal: a boy visits his uncle in the 1950s south, and his host talks him nearly to death about the significance of absolutely everything they encounter. The dialogue is stiff, didactic, unnatural, excessively expository. It's not at all what I'd expect from the director of Killer of Sheep.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the archival footage is rich, perhaps richer than in any of the other films. It helps that it features some of my favorite bluesmen: Rev. Gary Davis, Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House. There's some snatches of gospel music, too. I wish there were more.

Cinematically, the high point was some old films of work gangs, crosscut with boy and uncle standing alone on the ground where the convicts used to toil. The sequence drove home how unbelievable oppression could be the foundry for great art. If the whole episode were like that, it would have been the best installment in the series.

Godfathers and Sons (Marc Levin): The story of Chess records, as seen through the eyes of the founder's son. Who is a completely un-self-conscious fellow, in ways that both charmed and embarrassed me. He's joined by Chuck D, who's apparently an admirer of an insane album Chess put together in the late '60s: Electric Mud, in which the music of Muddy Waters is psychedelicized. So along with the old stuff -- there is, again, lots of excellent ancient footage -- we see the duo's efforts to reunite the Electric Mud band with Chuck D and another rapper providing vocals for a couple of new tracks. This idea is so utterly ridiculous that I couldn't help enjoying myself.

Red, White & Blues (Mike Figgis): A conventional documentary -- old clips plus talking heads, your classic combination -- but an informative one. It's about the reception and reinterpretation of American blues in the British Isles, via the trad-jazz, skiffle, and blues-rock scenes. Interspersed is yet another modern jam session. Is this a fucking requirement for a movie about old musicians the pop audience hasn't heard of, that you have to assemble a bunch of more famous people to sing their songs before you can get them on television? As with the Wenders film, some of the modern material is solid stuff: I'm always happy to listen to Van Morrison, and Lulu does a nice country-soul performance of "Drown in My Own Tears." But why should anyone have to listen to Jeff Beck noodle his way through "People Get Ready"? That's a great song, and I don't care to hear it destroyed.

Sorry, I got a little sidetracked. This is actually a decent little movie, much preferable to Figgis' theatrical releases. And I can forgive PBS for devoting a seventh of a series about the blues to a bunch of white guys, though it got a little tiresome at the end when virtually every single interviewee had to say that the Brit bluesmen were really good for American blacks, doncha know, because they uncovered a whole new audience for their music. Yes, they did. It's a legitimate point, and it's OK to make it. But when you spend five minutes getting everyone to make it, over and over, I have to start wondering what you're trying to compensate for.

Piano Blues (Clint Eastwood): Eastwood isn't the world's best interviewer, and occasionally he blurs the definition of blues a bit too much even for me. ("Even patriotic songs can become the blues," he says -- a meaningless statement on multiple levels -- and then he cuts to Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful," which is pleasant but not especially bluesy.) But his film is loose and unpretentious, it lets the music take center stage, and it doesn't draw an artificial barrier between "blues" and "jazz." Along with Wenders' effort, it's my favorite film of the series.

posted by Jesse 11:50 AM
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