Judge Joe Armenio woke up this morning feeling around for his shoes. You know by that he had the walking blues.
A one-night history of the blues.
Lightning in a Bottle, executive-produced by Martin Scorsese (who also produced the 2003 PBS series The Blues) and directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), captures an all-star blues concert held at New York's Radio City Music Hall on February 7, 2003. The film features 28 songs performed by almost as many artists, all backed by a band directed by drummer Steve Jordan and including pianist Dr. John, guitarist Keb' Mo, harmonica player Kim Wilson (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds), and drummer Levon Helm (formerly of The Band). In theory, this is a "one-night history of the blues," as the songs trace the music from its African roots to the present day, but this organizing principle is pretty loose, and often threatens to get lost altogether. The focus is always on the concert, and non-performance material is kept to a minimum. There are some brief interviews, and a little footage of backstage hobnobbing, but these amount to little more than transitional passages. This focus on performance strikes me as a good thing; too many documentaries about artists decline into bland, repetitious overpraising of their subjects when they let people talk too much. It's best to let the music speak for itself.
The performers at the concert range from 88-year-old Mississippi delta bluesman David "Honeyboy" Edwards to soul veteran Solomon Burke, from Natalie Cole to Joe Perry and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. It's hard to imagine any but the crankiest blues purist being upset at the inclusion of so many rock and soul artists, since the depth and range of the blues' influence seems to be a primary point of the concert. All of the performers are reverent, perhaps too much so; I spent most of the first half of the film waiting for someone to cut loose and have fun rather than paying homage and treating the songs like museum pieces. Certainly this is a wonderful moment in the sun for the older artists present (Edwards, Larry Johnson, Ruth Brown, Burke, B.B. King)—a tribute that they richly deserve—but the film almost always feels more like the record of a good deed than an account of an exciting show. Early on we see some archival performance footage of the majestic and riveting Son House playing "Death Letter Blues"; those few seconds are a more powerful reminder of the blues' beauty and strangeness than anything else in the concert.
The all-star concert format, which usually winds up sounding better in theory than it turns out in practice, also works against the buildup of too much purely musical excitement. With so many acts limited to one song apiece, there's little time to build up any momentum; before you know it Mavis Staples is done and we move on to Honeyboy Edwards, who gets about two minutes in the spotlight before it's Keb' Mo's turn, and the power of the music becomes secondary to the sheer name-checking impressiveness of it all. There are so many brilliant performers in the house that no one is actually allowed to perform brilliantly.
I don't mean to be churlish—this is a very enjoyable film, and several of the performances are, on their own, worth the price of the DVD. Solomon Burke is great, declaiming from what looks to be a genuine throne on Bobby Bland's "Turn On Your Love Light" and his own "Down In the Valley." Buddy Guy, who influenced Jimi Hendrix those many years ago, plays with great energy on his "Red House," and accompanies Angelique Kidjo's vocal on "Voodoo Child." Legendary Texas maverick Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown appears as nimble a guitarist as ever on a version of his 1954 recording "Okie Dokie Stomp." The oddball performance of the night is that of rapper Chuck D, who turns John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" into a protest of the (then-impending) Iraq war. I appreciated the political turn, but the song itself is pretty slapdash.
In his interview on the DVD, director Fuqua says that he considers most concert films overlit, and that he wanted to make Radio City Music Hall seem small and dark "like a juke joint." The film does have a beautifully moody, shadowy look, although Fuqua never quite succeeds in making the venue seem anything less than cavernous. (Anything else might be an impossible task.) The editing is tasteful, rarely drawing much attention to itself (although the several shots of guitarists' hands, shot from below and using the glare of the lights, are very pretty).
The widescreen transfer is impeccable, as is the rich Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The extras include five performances that didn't make it into the film, the most notable of which is Buddy Guy's "The First Time I Met the Blues." Fuqua's eight-minute interview consists mostly of expressions of respect for the artists involved, with the digression on the look of the film that I've already mentioned.
Although Lightning in a Bottle never wavers from its tone of reverent celebration, it struck me as a sort of elegy. Blues music has produced more than its share of brilliant artists in its hundred or so years of existence, and has exercised a lasting influence on pop music since the beginnings of rock and roll. But it seems more important now as an inspiration than as a living art form. A lot of blues aficionados would probably disagree with me, citing any number of important new artists (a few of whom are featured in the film), but these artists seem to be faithfully reproducing the styles of the past, rather than creating anything new.
Maybe the blues was a musical form so rooted in a particular place and time (the African-American community of the pre-Civil Rights Movement 20th century) that it was bound to pass away with changing times. What survives into the 21st century is its influence on all of the world's music, which is so deep that it often goes unnoticed. Anyway, most of the blues performers in the film are getting up there in years, and we won't have them with us forever. It's good to have Lightning in a Bottle as a record of their last go-round.
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