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A History, an Homage
HIS is the one thing they could never take away from
black people," says the dreadlocked blues performer Corey Harris in "Feel
Like Going Home," the Martin Scorsese documentary that on Sunday night
begins the seven-part PBS series
Mr. Harris is a smart, calm performer whose affection for and knowledge of the idiom rival Taj Mahal's. (He also talks with Taj Mahal and joins him in a duet). But as powerful and moving as this opening is, another film has a far more telling and funny impact both intended and unintended. It's "Red, White and Blues," the director Mike Figgis's segment.
Mr. Figgis's documentary is filled with pink faces: white Englishmen talking about the blues changing their lives. "Red, White and Blues" evoking the colors of the British flag, too is like a revisited Billboard chart from 1966 London, featuring John Mayall, Lonnie Donegan, Mick Fleetwood and Steve Winwood. The first men shown are Tom Jones and Jeff Beck. (They're identified on screen later, as is Van Morrison, unlike the other less-well-known performers.)
All these Caucasian visages, laughing and talking about the blues sweeping into their lives, subtly speak more about what has happened to the music than any of the more declamatory statements in the films by the other directors in this overreaching and uneven series: Mr. Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Charles Burnett, Marc Levin, Richard Pearce and Wim Wenders.
The accretion of whites in Mr. Figgis's film reflects both the majority of the public-television viewership as well as the largest audience for the blues these days. The London blues-rock stars who heard the music as teens in the 1950's and 60's like Eric Clapton and Eric Burdon, who are both featured in Mr. Figgis's film exposed it to the rest of the record-buying world: suburban kids who now keep it alive. It's a sad fact that "The Blues," devoted to the cumulative power of a cultural phenomenon, tends to ignore the racial shift in the music's fans. Such a lack is like overlooking a roasted tree stump that was rocked by lightning.
"Blues," however, doesn't ignore the crackle of the music itself. In choosing Mr. Harris, an eager young performer who approaches the music not as a musty shrine but as a thriving art that he's still laboring to master, Mr. Scorsese has found a gently transfixing focal point for his film. The director shows his trust in the material by not investing it with his frequently exhibitionist directing. His discretion also signals an understanding of the small screen versus the big screen.
In the first episode, Mr. Harris tracks the trail that the blues archaeologist Alan Lomax hit with his notebooks and tape recorder when he started his archival expedition. Yet despite Mr. Harris's sentiments about black America's proprietary relationship with the genre, the blues is a form that has been detached from modern black life, an evolution that's barely addressed in the series. In "Boogaloo," his book on African-American music history, Arthur Kempton quotes an unnamed 1950's black doo-wopper: "We used to laugh at the blues . . . thought it was funny . . . we were going to school every day, and these blues singers hadn't even gone to grammar school. That . . . stuff was . . . old music."
It's an attitude that's evinced briefly by Mr. Burnett, who chose to film a drama with personal touches (he was born in Mississippi) rather than a documentary. In his segment, "Warming by the Devil's Fire," Junior (Nathaniel Lee Jr.), a 12-year-old Northerner, is sent to visit his blues-loving Uncle Buddy (a powerful Tommy Hicks) in 1956. In one scene Junior is slumped in boredom as his uncle sits, absorbed and transported by his blues 78's; it's a moment of cultural dislocation that many African-American kids who were dragged to see relatives in the South can identify with, a moment of truth that shames us many years later.
Though both "Devil's Fire" and Uncle Buddy have pedantic streaks, Mr. Burnett evokes a discord that makes sense, touching on the schism between generations. It's simply a definition of kids refusing to see the life in what feels to them like music from the Jurassic Park Orchestra. Though it later rouses Junior out of a sound night's sleep, Uncle Buddy's feet bounce to the rhythm even while he's dozing.
Mr. Pearce's film, "The Road to Memphis," starts with Bobby Rush preparing to play for a black audience, meticulously lubricating his California-Curl coiffure so that it can withstand the testing of the Afro-American neo-blues circuit that ZZ Hill and Johnnie Taylor worked. "The Road to Memphis" follows a group of blues performers Mr. Rush, Rosco Gordon, B. B. King as they convene in Memphis in 2002 for the W. C. Handy awards.
Mr. King returns home to the celebrated radio station WDIA, where he
got his start as an on-air personality. You may recognize the D.J.'s,
including Rufus Thomas, from their appearances in another nouveau-soul
documentary, Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker's
Mr. Pearce's documentary answers Mr. Figgis's film: the performers talk
about the often volatile relationships they have with black audiences. As
Both Mr. Burnett and Mr. Scorsese's segments are linked by film of the
fabled Son House, who speaks into the camera to give his definition of the
blues after running his percussive, fast-picking fingers through a song.
"Ain't but one kinda blues, and that consists between male and female in
love," House admonishes, beautifully drawing an extra syllable out of the
word "consists." (Robert Johnson's
Each segment of the series wrestles with trying to boil down the blues
to a single thought or sentiment. The most embarrassing is Mr. Wenders's
Though "The Soul of a Man" sometimes feels more like a carrier of the blues than an explainer of it Laurence Fishburne can be heard intoning a narration as a camera meanders around the globe Mr. Wenders has assembled a sparkling group of musicians, from James Ulmer to Lucinda Williams and Cassandra Wilson. Perhaps his storytelling approach can be faulted, but not his taste.
The most fascinating definition of the genre comes in Mr. Eastwood's "Piano Blues," in which the director, an occasional pianist, joins artists at keyboards around the country and lets them speak. Ray Charles summarizes the blues by describing the way he was taught to play piano. He demonstrates banging away at the keys with both hands, and exhibits the lesson a family friend gave: "I'm-a teach you how to play a melody with one finger." And the one-hand melody that Mr. Charles learned shows up among the other pianists that Mr. Eastwood sits with: Dr. John, Pinetop Perkins, Jay McShann and even Dave Brubeck, who tells of being introduced to Art Tatum, his mentor, through the blues.
Mr. Eastwood lights up with these masters, mellowly thrilled when he and Mr. Charles simultaneously shout the name of the stride-bluesman Meade Lux Lewis. His shy awe with Mr. McShann also registers. When Mr. McShann says, "I never did draw any difference between blues and any of the stuff," referring to jazz and rock 'n' roll, the movie coolly agrees with him by showing clips of a range of performers hitting the blues chords that bind them from Professor Longhair to Count Basie and ending with a number of interview subjects sitting at a keyboard and playing together.
Mr. Eastwood's film is organized by interviews, and we're struck by the patience and care he accords the living masters qualities you wish he'd lavish more often on his dramatic-film directing.
Mr. Levin's "Godfathers and Sons" isn't nearly as effective in creating links. It brings together Public Enemy's Chuck D and Marshall Chess, son of the Chicago-based Chess Records founder Leonard Chess, to discuss the influence on hip-hop of music like Muddy Waters's "Electric Mud."
Connecting these musicians makes sense: the coordinated strafing of the Bomb Squad's production on Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" was inspired by the coiled funk of Waters's album; and Waters's drumstick-sized pompadour was almost as eye-catching as Flavor Flav's teeth.
The Chess family is let off the hook for their exploitation of their artists; whose house was it that Muddy Waters had to paint to get out of his contract?
(But "The Blues" has not been let off the hook by Wixen Music Publishing, representing more than 500 acts, whose president, Randall Wixen, has accused the show of underpaying some of the artists whose work it uses.)
"The Blues" really wants to throw a warm, fluffy blanket over the art and read valedictory statements to it. And that Chuck D finally appears on public television at a time when Public Enemy is as safe an oldies act as B. B. King may offer a hint as to what's in store. Is that Ken Burns warming up for his 12-hour rap documentary?
"The Blues" series begins Sunday night (9/28/03) on most PBS stations and ends on the evening of Oct. 4. (Check local listings for times.) The schedule of the individual films:
"FEEL LIKE GOING HOME," Sunday night. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
"THE SOUL OF A MAN," Monday night. Directed by Wim Wenders.
"THE ROAD TO MEMPHIS," Tuesday night. Directed by Richard Pearce.
"WARMING BY THE DEVIL'S FIRE," Wednesday night. Directed by Charles Burnett.
"GODFATHERS AND SONS," Thursday night. Directed by Marc Levin.
"RED, WHITE AND BLUES," next Friday night. Directed by Mike Figgis.
"PIANO BLUES," Oct. 4. Directed by Clint Eastwood.