Shout! Factory // 2012 // 119 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 21st, 2014
Survival is a word. This is its story.
James Brown earned the title of "hardest working man in show business" for his blistering live performances that he toured day after day (with multiple shows a day in some cases). I won't argue with the name too much, but if there were a second place crown in the offing, B.B. King might be the one. Through a 60+ year career, he spent several decades touring over 300 days a year, bringing his brand of electric blues to the masses. Even now, in his late 80s and playing less, his yearly career average is still over 250 shows. When I first saw him live he was in his late 70s and admitted that he finally, after four decades of touring, conceded to sitting down to play. Though he long-ago reached elder statesman status, King hasn't generally received the kind of retrospective adulation of similar figures, at least in part because he keeps working and has kept up the pace of a much younger man for so long. Now that he's in his late 80s and slowing down somewhat, it was obviously time to acknowledge King's profound impact in cinematic form. The result is B.B. King: The Life of Riley, a documentary that explores King's life as well as his impact on other musicians. Though it could be more focused, fans of the blues will find this an essential documentary.
Narrated by Morgan Freeman, The Life of Riley starts with King's upbringing in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, born on a cotton plantation into a life of poverty. From there the film traces -- using interviews with King himself -- the discovery of the guitar (a gift from noted blues musicians and cousin Bukka White) and his eventual rise to one of the most prominent blues musicians in the world. This story intersects with the general explosion of the blues following its discovery by British bands, who then re-introduced it to American audiences. The documentary also intersperses King's story with insights from musicians -- Bono, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton -- and others (President Obama!) who discuss his impact on music and wider culture.
B.B. King was roughly 85 when The Life of Riley was filmed. That means his life has spanned several distinct eras in American history. He's not afraid to detail the horrendous difficulty caused by a combination of Jim Crow racism and poverty. It is this horror, in fact, that helps propel the young King into the world of music, one where plows and cotton picking are absent. King, though, rose to prominence during what we call the "Civil Rights" era, in the late 1960s into the early '70s. He narrates his experience of that era as well before bringing it all home to the current day, in which we have an African-American president. The film offers a more personal take on a century ripe with important historical events. Combine that with King's personal reminisces about his own life and the film perfectly balances a portrait of the individual artist and his wider culture.
Part of that wider culture is the music that King influenced with his singular guitar technique. I could geek out all day about his playing, but so much of what makes King a fascinating musician is the way he and his guitar basically "sing" to one another. His playing is crystal clear but has a richness of tone that few players can match. And yet he's influenced countless musicians, many of whom appear here. Eric Clapton's '70s excess is hard to imagine without King's lead-lines, and though U2 might initially seem like a stretch in terms of influence, Bono makes a convincing case. Fans of King will likely recognize most of the interviewees, and they're all pretty compelling.
Shout! Factory gives B.B. King: The Life of Riley a solid Blu-ray release. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded HD transfer has been cobbled together from contemporary interview footage along with archival materials, including King's personal photos. The material varies in quality -- the contemporary stuff looking clean and sharp, while some of the older material is faded or damaged -- but the transfer itself does a fine job with no significant compression artifacts. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is fine, though fans would likely prefer an uncompressed track. The interviewees are easy to understand, and the narration is always audible, but this isn't a stunning track.
The extras start with 25 minutes of additional interview footage that give some of the participants more room to stretch out. There's also a nine minute excerpt from King's Royal Albert Hall performance (available in its entirety as a separate release).
B.B. King has always had a weakness for women, and this is something the documentary glosses over. That's not necessarily a problem (though King has owned up to it in print before), but it does indicate that this documentary isn't going to really push too hard on King's life story. We don't need a hard-hitting expose or anything, but without discussing some of the darker aspects of his adulthood, the film feels like it lacks dramatic weight or much of an arc, especially for a two hour film.
B.B. King: The Life of Riley is a fine enough document of the legendary blues musician. Though fans will likely already know much of this story, to hear from such a diverse audience is a blessing. Sadly, the film doesn't feel essential, never quite coalescing into a complete portrait of the artist. Taken as a celebration/appreciation, the film is fine, but those looking for more insight into a national treasure might be disappointed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site