Judge Clark Douglas heard some bad, bad news...now he needs to sing the blues.
A road trip through the birthplace of the blues.
For years, two young guys named Roger Stolle and Jeff Konkel dreamed of making a film about the blues. Much like Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, Stolle and Konkel were fans of real old-fashioned blues, not the modern nonsense posing as blues music. In the spring of 2008, they decided to take a road trip through the state of Mississippi and pay a visit to a large handful of local blues musicians. Bringing music producer Bill Abel along with them to record any tunes that might be played during the trip, Stolle and Konkel embarked upon the ambitious task of capturing the full scope of the local Mississippi blues scene. Though this documentary is an uneven viewing experience, the duo has done a reasonably satisfactory job of achieving their aims. M for Mississippi is a colorful, entertaining little field trip featuring a few memorable characters.
These are real blues musicians; people who are living the miseries they sing about. There isn't a single individual here who looks remotely affluent. In fact, with their well-combed hair and clean clothes, Stolle and Konkel look considerably well-do-to in comparison to almost all of their disheveled interview subjects. These people are just getting by the best they can. The first interview subject is an old man who spends his days sitting on the sidewalk with his guitar and a coffee can for people to drop money in. His idea of a good payday is making 7 dollars in a single performance. His music is incredibly soulful, even if it's near-impossible to discern what the man is singing about. "So what was that song about?" Stolle asks nervously. The man replies with an answer as indiscernible as the songs. "What's that?" The man replies once again. Stolle gives up, simply nodding his head and saying, "Oh, okay, I see."
The most popular topic of conversation is the future of the blues. Terry "Harmonica" Bean ("My stage name is Terry Harmonica Bean…my working name is just plain old Terry Bean,") isn't sure that the blues will be able to survive once his generation passes away. "I hope somebody picks it up and carries it on," he says. "But I don't know." This sentiment is echoed by many others, including Jimmy "Duck" Holmes. Jimmy says he just keeps playing and hopes for the best. Another musician chimes in, "Blues ain't straight anymore. You gotta hurt. People who ain't hurt are singing the blues. If you got a wife or a girlfriend you love so much and they treat you wrong, you start hurting. Then you got a reason to sing the blues. That's where the real blues come from."
Life hasn't exactly been kind to most of the people in this film, and their music seems more genuine as a result. Even so, many of these folks seem to be reasonably content with where they are. They recognize their problems, they sing about them, but they've made their peace when it comes to actually living life. They are interesting people with a lot of interesting stories to tell. Some are more interesting than others. One man in particular seems to be a never-ending series of eccentricities. He has framed a picture of disaster footage from Hurricane Katrina in order to pay tribute to those who died there. Around the picture of tragedy, he has pasted several photos of Oprah Winfrey. "Why do you have so many pictures of Oprah next to the Katrina picture?" he is asked. "Hmm? Oh, I don't know. I just like Oprah," he smiles. He then proceeds to demonstrate how to make a cat's head out of clay. He uses clay from Wal-Mart, but insists that it isn't as good as the clay he usually finds in the hills. "Real clay has a better texture," he says. "Plus you can eat it." The guys raise their eyebrows. "Yeah, it's good when you bake it. It tastes kind of like dirt. It's good." I began to wonder if I was being subjected to an Incident at Loch Ness-style fusion of reality and comedy.
In fact, Stolle and Konkel have made a film that is as much about small-town oddities as it is about blues music. There's a particularly surreal interview with a man whose train of thought changes every five or six words. As he rambles through a series of thoughts on music, race relations, life, and love, he also shouts at his dog, asks his mother to bring him cigarettes, and points out people walking by that he knows. The interview finally concludes with a random fellow sitting down in front of the interviewee, resting his head against the guy's leg and drinking a bottle of liquor. Moments like this appear with surprising frequency. One sight that made me laugh out loud was a sign for a pawn shop: "Attention crack heads! Spring is here! It's time to pawn your heater." It's hilarious at a first glance, but rooted in a very real sadness. The film excels when it manages to capture such bittersweet elements.
The transfer is pretty stellar, though the level of detail suffers a great deal during scenes with significant music. Some of the darker scenes are also a bit murky, but in general I have no real complaints. I am a little bothered by the random black-and-white scenes that turn up from time to time, as there doesn't seem to be any justifiable reason to present them in black-and-white. As such, they're simply a distraction (as are the frequent split-scene offerings). Audio is quite solid throughout thanks Abel's superb engineering skills, often achieving studio sound in the most unlikely of places. The music itself isn't always great…there are some folks here who actually just aren't very good at playing their instruments…but all of it is captured with clarity. The bonus features are a behind-the-scenes featurette, some deleted scenes, a trailer and bios on the filmmakers and artists featured.
Though a stronger narrative could have taken this documentary from "pretty good" to "very good," M for Mississippi is an engaging watch. It's worth a rental.
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