[4 January 2010]
You should know right away: Taj Mahal does not perform in Deep Sea Blues. It’s true that he was aboard the ship and did play during the time Robert Mugge shot his documentary on the Legendary Blues Cruise of 2007. It’s true the DVD packaging, promotional art and website all highlight his appearance in the movie. The movie, though, is without a single song from the most popular artist on the ship, presumably because of contractual obligations.
There are so many talented acts in the film that Taj Mahal’s silence should hardly matter. Tab Benoit, the Louisiana bluesman, is the first musician to take the stage in the movie. He brings his swampy, zydeco-tinged sound to the ship’s deck stage with all the energy his fans love him for, and “We Make a Good Gumbo”, comes across well enough. The performance is shot from just a few cameras, and there’s limited movement to any shot (fair enough, it is a boat). Still, Benoit puts such a charge into his music that his is one of the few acts that come to life at home on the small screen.
Barely after the first chorus of “We Make a Good Gumbo”, though, Mugge cuts away to an interview with cruise executives Roger Nabor and Judy Alexander. They’ve been doing this for 15 years, and oh my how the boats have changed and so on and so forth. Fascinating enough, but where’s that gumbo? Benoit never does get to finish his song, and he never gets back on screen again, either. Instead, a small stream of talking head interviews develops, continuing on about the schedule and how great the atmosphere is.
Mugge’s movie follows this format throughout, and it takes a toll on the overall viewing experience. A little bit of music comes before—is often interrupted by—a whole lot of talk. Talk about the ship’s amenities, talk about the wildness of the cruisers, talk about how great it is to be back again this year. Never does Deep Sea Blues leave a viewer wondering what’s going, for better or worse. Title cards indicate what day the musicians are performing as they pop on screen, showing that the filmmakers were inexplicably concerned with presenting the performances in chronological order.
Benoit’s Sunday night trip-opener was followed by Bobby Rush and Deanna Bogart’s Monday morning show for cruise returnees. Again, the cameras are limited, and the audience feels absent. It may be that there are no angles of the whole room, or it may be that the cruisers aren’t awake yet. Rush goes into a lewd pantomime mid-verse, and there’s still no audible reaction from the crowd. Finally, he solicits and receives applause with a gesture in Bogart’s direction, but still the number feels flat. It’s among the few songs in the film presented in its entirety.
Taj Mahal appears on Tuesday afternoon. He leaves his guitar offscreen and instead carries a sack, which is supposedly filled with Mahal’s personal spice collection. The cooking demo by the “special guest chef” is funny and captivating enough, but it‘s intercut throughout the rest of the picture, and it only whets the appetite for the musical performance that never comes. Anybody who bought the DVD to find out if the blues legend likes banana Vakasoso has nothing to complain about.
For those looking for good music, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials bring the movie back to life. Shooting onshore at Grand Turk, Mugge captures all of the zest of “Icicles in my Meatloaf”. The cruisers frolic in a pool, and it’s finally easy to enjoy the music. This is what’s been missing from the rest of the film. Taking advantage of the freedom of dry land, the filmmakers catch the action from every desirable angle, and the event taking place on screen translates into a palpable energy for the viewer at home.
There are other strong performances in the movie. The Joey Gilmore Blues Band gets “Bit off More Than I Could Chew” off to a stellar start before being interrupted by more interviews, and Tasha Taylor and the Phantom Blues Band deliver with “Wonder Woman”. Michael Burks’ “As the Years Go By” is everything the film should be. His guitar wails while the ocean breeze blows across the deck, and the sky and the sea come together in the distant horizon.
The limitations of shooting this kind of movie on a boat may have prevented an outstanding musical experience from emerging, but more likely the stodgy format did Deep Sea Blues in. True fans of the blues will find plenty to enjoy with this movie, but it serves as a poor introduction for the uninitiated. In a two-hour concert film, too much time is spent with talking heads explaining what a great time the cruise is. No artist is allowed to play more than a single song, and most aren’t even allowed to finish it. We can see how much fun the ship is, but we rarely feel it.
The DVD doesn’t include typical documentary extra features like extended interviews, evidently because so much was crammed into the film. It does offer concert footage of complete versions of four songs cut off in the movie and three songs from artists not seen at all.