Can white men sing the blues? It’s been a moot point since the days of the Sixties R&B boom. This set poses an entirely new question: can white men sing the praises of the blues? Specifically, an Englishman, a German, and an Italian American…
The seven DVDs here, each available separately, first saw the light of day last year as a series of feature-length documentaries, made for the US TV’s public service network, overseen by Martin Scorsese. Of course, Scorsese’s been delighting in the potency of popular music since he soundtracked Mean Streets (1973) with girl group pop (itself a device pilfered from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising ). For this project, Scorsese dispatched a pack of name filmmakers off to assorted locations armed with DV cameras, each charged with capturing their own take on the might and influence of the venerable Blues tradition. The results avoid any attempt at providing a definitive account, and wisely so: instead, these are impressionistic, individual works, each spotlighting a different facet of the subject.
Understandably, several techniques recur throughout, such as the use of archive footage, new interviews, or narration. The varying degree of success with the stories are told largely depend on the blend they achieve with these elements. For instance, Charles Burnett’s Warming by the Devil’s Fire opts to weld documentary footage to iffy dramatic reconstructions of 1950s Mississippi, largely to its detriment, whereas Wim Wenders’ The Soul of a Man employs the same technique more sparingly, to impressively intense effect, in documenting lost Blues veterans such as Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James.
Often those films on living subjects, present and correct, are, unsurprisingly, the most vital and compelling: Richard Pearce’s The Road to Memphis covers the career of BB King, juxtaposing a celebration of the man’s art with the bitter struggle of his early years, showcasing new footage of King himself; whereas Mike Figgis’ Red, White and Blues illustrates the diffusion of the Blues style into the music of British champions like Van Morrison and Jeff Beck, with a decent helping of new performances.
The remaining three films are more wayward and personal, and even more engaging for it. Marc Levin’s Godfathers and Sons employs Public Enemy’s Chuck D as frontman, stylishly tracing the journey of Chicago bluesmen, and flying the flag for Muddy Waters’ ill-fated, underrated 1968 ‘comeback’ album, Electric Mud. Clint Eastwood’s Piano Blues is a freewheeling, affectionate tribute to the likes of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair (the focus wandering, perhaps, across into jazz), and is a winning proposition; and Scorsese’s own series opener, Feels Like Going Home, aims to trace the lineage from the original Delta blues to the practitioners of the present day, but thankfully never heavy-handedly.
It’s these entries that are most successful in summoning up and communicating the soulful kick of the music, which is surely the whole point. (The legendary quote, usually attributed to Frank Zappa, claiming that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’, holds true for filmmaking about music, too: the core of the subject matter here is best captured in an eccentric, personal fashion rather than head-on.) As such, the Eastwood, Scorsese and Levin films are perhaps the most accessible and rewarding, but taken as a piece, the seven DVDs – each complete with extra footage besides the main feature – are a considerable achievement, and overall an irresistible, if pricey, treat.