[Dixielandjazz] THE BLUES - A Martin Scorsese Documentary.

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Fri Sep 26 11:24:31 PDT 2003

Ther PBS TV Series "THE BLUES" starts this Sunday in most cities in the
USA, runs every night and ends on October 4th. If the Blues are YKOM,
read on, if not you may want to delete now.

TV REVIEW - NY Times Review Sept 26, 2003

The Blues: A History, an Homage


THIS 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 "The Blues." Mr. Scorsese, who is also the series'
executive producer, opens his film with a very sexy double-bass-drums
and fife trio pounding and trilling out counterrhythms that challenge
the de rigueur imagery of distended-chord guitar playing. This scene
connects the blues solidly to Africa and America in a way that will be
new to many.

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

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

"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

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

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 "Only the Strong

Mr. Pearce's documentary answers Mr. Figgis's film: the performers talk
about the often volatile relationships they have with black audiences.
As it progresses, "Memphis" builds power, growing from a journeyman
approach that echoes the lives of its workman-artist subjects.

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 "Sweet Home Chicago," with
its slowed melancholy reminiscent of an overnight train ride, can also
be heard in both films; Mr. Harris revisits it in Mr. Scorsese's "Feel
Like Going Home.")

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
"Soul of a Man," a well-meaning and portentous piece that was laughed
off the screen at film festivals around the world. Let's hope his
segment isn't running during any station's pledge period unless it's
trying to raise enough money to go off the air.

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 his12-hour rap documentary?

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