The Blues Review

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Seven directors were given an open brief to make a personal, feature-length documentary on the blues for a series executive-produced by Martin Scorsese for PBS television. Prior to UK broadcast, they will receive cinema screenings at selected venues across the country.


At various points during these seven documentaries, musicians ponder an impossible question: what is the blues? A heartfelt expression of racial prejudice? The ache of love between a man and a woman? A specific way of structuring a song? Perhaps the answer has something to do with geography because, when taken together, the films — each of which can be viewed individually and in any order — range across many miles.

In Feel Like Going Home, Martin Scorsese traces the origins of the music not only to the Mississippi Delta of chain gang chants and cotton field hollers, but also to familiar rhythms in Mali, Africa. Given the director’s support of film preservation, it comes as no surprise that he’s keen to document some of the old-timers before they shuffle off this mortal coil.

Mississippi, albeit in the 1950s, is also the destination in Charles Burnett’s Warming By The Devil’s Fire. By taking a docu-drama approach to the opening of a young boy’s ears to the twin forces of angelic gospel and devilish blues, it actually makes the racial history of the period more immediate.

From there, we head on The Road To Memphis with Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner, contrasting the lucrative concert hall status of B. B. King with club circuit slogger Bobby Rush, and taking a fascinating sidetrack visit to Sun Records and a grouchy Sam Phillips.

The blues legacy of Chicago lives on in Chess Records, and the forceful personality of Marshall Chess is at the heart of Marc Levin’s Godfathers And Sons. As the Jewish producer brings together psychedelic blues band Electric Mud and Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, we realise how music transforms itself from generation to generation and culture to culture.

Britain has its say in Mike Figgis’ Red, White & Blues, a veritable who’s who of the 1960s scene (Eric Clapton, Tom Jones, John Mayall etc.) that mixes straight interviews with an Abbey Road jam session. Unfortunately, we don’t get much of Clint Eastwood tinkling the ivories in Piano Blues. Instead he acts as interviewer to the likes of Ray Charles and Dave Brubeck, while trawling the archives for a compendium of great live performances that blur the line between jazz and blues.

Finally, Wim Wenders’ The Soul Of A Man disjointedly links a dramatisation of Skip James’ legendary 1931 recording session with the director’s documentary footage of J. B. Lenoir from the 1960s. Cover versions by the likes of Nick Cave, Beck and Jon Spencer are terrific.

Impressionistic rather than comprehensive, and more about the music than the filmmaking. So, at the end of seven films and almost 11 hours, what is the blues? Twelve bars, three chords, infinite possibilities.