Martin Scorsese's...The Blues (PBS & Sony DVD, 2003)

The Blues is the umbrella title under which exists seven distinct films, by seven independent film-makers. Originally Martin Scorsese had planned to make a film outlining the history of this music, which he calls "one of America's most unique and important art forms." That plan changed as the depth and intricacies of the music were uncovered. The work was shared among seven different directors, each of whom chose one aspect of the blues to celebrate. The first film, (and they must be considered individually) was broadcast one Sunday night in October.

Feel Like Going Home is the title of Scorsese's contribution. It is essentially a voyage of discovery by modern blues artist Corey Harris into the history of his genre. Harris is introduced playing his contemporary blues on stage. His music pays tribute to those who have come before him. He then sets off to visit players from previous generations, and eventually travels to Mali, in West Africa to meet the founding fathers.

Scorsese's film is a bit scattershot; the music is outstanding, the clips of the old bluesmen are marvelous to see. The footage of Son House appears to be taken from the German television broadcast of The American Folk Blues but from a different master, as it is nowhere near as crisp and clean as on the Folk Blues DVD. Son House is an unusual choice to present as a key player: in his later years he attacked his guitar, and is not as "user friendly" for non-blues-fans to get. He does, however, make the link to African music much simpler. John Lee Hooker's one-chord blues, Otha Turner's fife and drum meditations, and House's attack lead directly into the most fascinating part of the film. Corey Harris goes home. To Mali. He speaks with Ali Farka Toure about his ancestors being taken to America in the hull of a wooden ship. Toure talks about black Americans as being "Africans with two homes." The music they play together is stirring. The use of subtitles, while necessary for the African-French spoken by Toure and Salif Keita, seem a bit insulting when they "translate" the blues lyrics of Muddy Waters and House.

Wim Wenders, the German director who gave us The Buena Vista Social Club, directed part two, Soul of a Man. Titled after a Blind Willie Johnson tune, this film takes a surrealistic look at Wenders three blues heroes. Blind Willie Johnson was a preacher and a gospel singer. His guitar playing in open D tuning, bottleneck style, was haunting. His signature tune "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" inspired Ry Cooder to play bottleneck guitar, and was individual enough to be included on the record for aliens that was included in the Voyager space-craft. Wenders begins his film with a look at the launch of the Voyager, he follows it into the outer reaches of space and a voice (Lawrence Fishburne) tells the story of Blind Willie Johnson in first person narrative. The narration is clumsily written, and is in no way representative of the way Johnson spoke or the words he would have used...but it's an effective technique to move the film along. Wenders used a hand cranked silent movie camera, with black and white stock, to film the re-enactment scenes. Then he added sound effects and the original music, and synchronized audio and visuals using 21st century technology. The effect achieved is a bit like poorly dubbed silent film, various speeds and jerky motion included. Both Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James are portrayed by actors. They are reasonably effective portrayals.

A rare series of 16mm films of performances by J.B.Lenoir matches the quality set by the hand-cranked camera. Filmed on two occasion, with a rented camera, by two blues loving art students, the footage of Lenoir (pronounced Len-Or) is amazing. His high pitched, almost feminine voice, is offset by his rolling guitar licks. And his outfits (in the colour film he wears a set of tuxedos, with tails, tiger striped, gold, black and white with some delightful red socks) are amazing.

After each bluesman is introduced, and we hear him sing a signature song, Wenders cuts to digital footage of a modern artist interpreting the song. We see Lucinda Williams playing "Hard Time Killing Floor," Alvin Youngblood Hart doing "Illinois Blues," Bonnie Raitt "Devil Got My Woman," Jon Spencer Blues Experience, Cassandra Wilson, Beck, T-Bone Burnett, Los Lobos, Shemekia Copeland and others. Ever wanted to hear Lou Reed sing the blues? Here's your chance. Perhaps the most exciting performance is Marc Ribot locked in a fight to the finish with his guitar, as he struggles to wring out every emotion and sound he can in his rendition of "Dark Was the Night." Amazing.

The music is brilliant, the film courageous and deeply personal. Is it successful? Well...it kept me upright in a chair for ninety minutes. Fascinating stuff. One interview subject who is common to both episodes is the great blues scholar and champion Dick Waterman. Photographer, manager, and friend of some of the greats Mr. Waterman's breadth of knowledge and his charm adds an intimate touch to both films.

Road to Memphis is, as its title suggests, a road movie. It follows two blues-men, BB King and Bobby Rush. Bobby plays 250 gigs a year on the "chitlin circuit;" BB plays an equal number of shows, in ritzy hotels, and arenas. Bobby hopes to be where BB is "soon." He's 66 years old. They each travel in a bus. BB's is customized, with separate rooms, leather couches, flat screen tvs; Bobby's is plain, nothing fancy...he shares the driving.

The film, directed by Richard Pearce, is centred on Memphis, Tennessee, and the roads leading in and out of this blues mecca. Denizens include Sam Phillips, who spent four years recording blues before he struck gold with Elvis Presley; Rosco Gordon (in Memphis to receive a W.C. Handy Award); Rufus Thomas (like BB King, he began as a disc jockey on a Memphis radio station); and musician and producer Jim Dickinson who shares a story about the secret c'odes of the blues. "Codes" was what he heard, "chords" are what they were talking about.

Racism is discussed. Ike Turner and Sam Phillips have an interesting give and take which has to be seen. A white radio station owner confesses that the blues "made [her] uneasy...there were elements in this music that my listeners understood that I didn't." Bobby Rush explains the link between the blues and the church, "I want to be lifted up by my baby on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning I want to be lifted up by Christ." The footage of Rush's club date on the Saturday night, shows a dancer who really knows how to "maximize her gluteous!"

Pearce's film is personal, not as far reaching as Wenders' or Scorsese's, but moving in its own way. Rosco Gordon passed on just weeks after appearing on stage at the Handy Awards. His funeral closes the film.

The fourth film is a fictionalized semi-autobiographical tale of the journey of an eleven year old boy from California who is sent to Mississippi to visit his uncle (a preacher) so he will "get saved and baptized." Another uncle (a blues singer) picks him up at the train station and takes him on a voyage of self discovery through the history of the blues. The structure of this film is awkward, and the black and white archival footage is often more powerful than the colour saturated new footage. While the film looked beautiful, and the brief summary of women blues singers showed how little attention has been devoted to the distaff side in this series, it made its point in the first fifteen minutes and tended to be a bit redundant towards the end. Warming By the Devil's Fire was directed by Charles Burnett.

For the blues purist Godfathers and Sons will be the hardest film to take. Made by Marc Levin, it shows the meeting of Marshall Chess (whose father and uncle formed Chess Records) and Chuck D of Public Enemy. They discuss the influence of an album Marshall Chess produced for Muddy Waters in 1968. On this record, Chess was trying to make Muddy acceptable to the white rock audience. They added psychedelic guitar and floated Muddy's blues over top. The record was poorly received by most people, in fact a similar album made for Howlin' Wolf was called "dogshit" by Wolf...and that's just how Chess promoted it! Over the years these albums have had an influence on hip-hop artists, linking them to the blues, in ways strtaight blues never did. Chuck D and Marshall Chess put together the original Electric Mud band and took the blues for another ride, bringing it into the 21st century with a new spin. Another wealth of archival footage, and live shots of Magic Slim, Otis Rush and Koko Taylor give the film resonance. And the hip-hop spin on Muddy's "I'm a Man?" To these ears it just proves that Muddy made the deepest grooves possible!

The sixth film was made by British director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas). Red, White and Blues details the long rich history of the blues in the United Kingdom. It features new performances by Van Morrison, Tom Jones, Jeff Beck and Lulu and interviews with veterans Chris Farlowe, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Eric Burdon and John Mayall. Wait a minute! LULU?! TOM JONES?! Blues singers? Well, they acquit themselves wonderfully, and prove there's lots of life left in those pipes! Britain bought into the blues much earlier than America did. Sailors, and travelers came back from the States with these marvelous treasures...records on such labels as Vocalion, Sun and so on...performers as exotic as Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson. For many of us, these British blues rock bands were where we first encountered the blues, only then doing the research of delving into the back catalogue...the source of their songs. My first blues record was a John Mayall album -- my second was Muddy Waters' Real Folk Blues.

There is, however, a much richer history of British infatuation with American music, and Figgis's film covers the trad-jazz fad as well. Interviews with Humphrey Lyttleton, Chris Barber and George Melly show the birth of British blues in the New Orleans sound of Ken Collyer's band, among others. Skiffle (that uniquely British transitional music between folk/blues and rock) is mentioned in an interesting exchange taken from two individual interviews. Ramblin' Jack Elliot declares, "Skiffle is disgustin'!" and Lonnie Donegan retorts, "Ramblin' Jack is a fake!" Hilarious. This film was fun, and invigorating, again mixing new footage with archival films to achieve a sense of tradition and invention.

The seventh, and final film, was directed (and hosted) by Clint Eastwood. Piano Blues is an elegant and relaxed look at perhaps the broadest section of the genre. Eastwood interviews pianists Ray Charles, Jay McShann, Dave Brubeck, Dr. John, and Henry Gray in a series of intimate and very comfortable face to fact meetings. Sitting next to his subject on the piano bench, the interviewer and interviewee are shown framed by the top of the grand piano and the body of the instrument. Eastwood has an affinity with the piano (it's his axe of choice) and with these great players. He has spiced up his films for years with hot [and cool] jazz. He is shown in one clip playing piano behind a blues singer; is it Honkytonk Man?

The film begins with an appreciation for the instrument, a potted history, and a quote from George Bernard Shaw, "Its invention was to music what the printing press was to poetry." Eastwood illuminates the discussions with archival footage, but he allows the footage to run on long enough for these historical performances to achieve the resonance they deserve. There is a sameness to the new footage, each interviewee framed in the same way, but these conversations are so warm and friendly, and the pianists so open that you feel as though you're in the same room with them. Charles and Brubeck seem so fragile, that a good breeze might blow them away, until they begin to play and then they are rooted by the history that they represent, and their fingers display such a mastery of the keys, the music they create is more solid than they are themselves. This is my favourite film and my favourite moment is, at the conclusion of the Ray Charles interview, as they separate, Eastwood says, "Thank you, Raymond!"

The seven disc DVD package is a perfect souvenir of the series. Each film is awarded its own disc, set neatly in those new slim-line plastic cases, housed in a heavy cardboard box (a 16 page booklet describes the programmes), and for the most part filled out with up to an hour of bonus material. The film transfers are crisp and beautiful. The programmes have intuitive menus that allow for easy manipulation through the material. You can even skip through the film to find musical performances if you like. Most films contain interviews with the director, and promotional material too. The only film without all this bonus material is Eastwood's Piano Blues which stands alone save for a director biography, and filmography.

You may argue about weaknesses here and there. You may wish they had covered one aspect of the blues in more depth. For instance why not a whole film on Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, et al? Or why not more Robert Johnson, or Muddy Waters, or Lonnie Johnson? But on the whole this is an in depth and fascinating look at "one of America's most unique and important art forms," just as Scorsese said! I love it, and I recommend The Blues to anyone who wants to understand how three chords and a set of repeated lyrics can equal poetry and art!

 

[David Kidney]