[3 November 2011]
It’s gone now. But for more than 90 years, Chicago’s Maxwell Street was the site of an open-air market. From the ‘20s to the ‘90s, above the din of vendors hawking wares, Maxwell Street echoed with the distinctive sound of the blues.
Today, near the corner of Halsted and Maxwell Streets on Chicago’s South Side, you’re more likely to watch a college baseball game or slurp a designer smoothie. The street’s namesake market has relocated twice. Yet the film Maxwell Street Blues provides viewers a time capsule of Maxwell Street as it once was.
Maxwell Street Blues is a documentary by Linda Williams and Raul Zaritsky that was shot in 1980 and released the following year. Thanks to the painstaking efforts of Chicago non-profit Facets Multimedia, Maxwell Street Blues has been carefully restored.
At the time of filming, Williams (now a film scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, not to be confused with film scholar Linda Ruth Williams of the University of Southampton in England) was working at the University of Illinois at Chicago just blocks from Maxwell Street’s open-air market. Presciently, Williams and Zaritsky sought to capture the Sunday market and its blues scene before the university expanded its campus into the area. Blending elements of observational and interactive documentary, the filmmakers guide viewers through the sights and sounds of the Maxwell Street Market in its waning years.
The narrative begins on the Chicago Transit Authority’s #8 bus, where an affable and talkative driver describes the market to his passengers, who tacitly represent a cross-section of Chicago’s multiculturalism. Williams’ camera, in pure observational mode at this point, alights with passengers at Maxwell Street and provides viewers a visual tour of the marketplace.
The lively street market is framed by creaky façades of tired buildings, debris-strewn vacant lots and crumbling concrete. This is a Chicago that limps, shattered and aching, in the aftermath of ‘60s social upheaval and ‘70s economic downturn. What better time to sing the blues?
So Williams and Zaritsky let the music speak. Full songs by such players as Floyd Jones, Playboy Venson, Arthur King and Pat Rushing are recorded on film. Cutaways show audiences rapt by the music. When the songs end, the busking banter begins as musicians appeal for donations.
Switching to interactive mode, Williams and Zaritsky interview a couple of record-shop owners, who provide history on Maxwell Street musicians who had recorded blues music, stretching back to the ‘20s. The list includes such pioneers as Papa Charlie Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy and Washboard Sam. Maxwell Street enjoyed its musical heyday in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and Chicago blues would go on to influence everything from the Beatles to punk rock to heavy metal.
Naturally, Williams and Zaritsky interview many musicians of Maxwell Street; most poignantly, the filmmakers spend a lot of time with Arvella Gray and Jim Brewer. Both man possess jovial demeanors that belie the many hardships they’d experienced, ostensibly suggesting a therapeutic result of playing the blues. Gray lost his sight and half his left hand from a shotgun blast in the ‘30s. Despite only two fingers on the fret board, Gray picks and strums a vibrant acoustic guitar while singing doleful tales about hopping freight trains.
Brewer is also sight impaired. Unlike Gray’s solo acoustic performance, Brewer plays electric guitar with a second guitar player, Albert Holland, and female vocalist Carrie Robinson. Brewer plays fuzzed-out gospel music while Robinson sings and dances with the energy of a woman filled with a spirit much larger than herself. Brewer takes a turn at vocals as he covers Albert E. Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away” — the same song performed by Alison Kraus and Gillian Welch on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. In contrast to the structured Kraus and Welch rendition, Brewer drifts off into pockets of percussive guitar riffs and stanzas of improvised lyrics, stretching out the song for several soulful minutes.
The Gray and Brewer sequences earn additional emotional weight considering both men passed away within one year of being filmed by Williams and Zaritsky.
One weakness of the film is that some interviews are difficult to hear or are even unintelligible, due either to the quality of audio at the time of taping or to generational loss. Such instances are forgivable considering the value of this historical document. DVD extras include an interview with blues historian Justin O’Brien, a photo essay by Paul Procaccio, and a short before-and-after presentation of the film restoration by Facets. The DVD also comes with a 24-page booklet containing essays by Williams and O’Brien, plus a timeline of Maxwell Street from 1847 to the present.
Much like Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club (1999), Maxwell Street Blues captures more than music; it captures a culture. John Landis provided a taste of that culture in his 1980 film The Blues Brothers, which includes a scene, shot on location in Maxwell Street, where John Lee Hooker sings “Boom Boom” to gathered crowds.
But where Landis served a snack, Williams and Zaritsky prepare a feast. Maxwell Street Blues is an immersive, compelling, heart-tugging, toe-tapping, stunning documentary. Blues lovers will latch on to every raspy vocal and gritty guitar lick. Those indifferent to the music will be moved by the humanity of the stories and the sociological picture that Williams and Zaritsky so artfully paint.
Viewing Maxwell Street Blues paradoxically stirs simultaneous emotions of melancholy and elation. Much like what happens when singing the blues.