The only introduction to the blues could be anthology. For while Charley Patton's drunken thumping is the heart of it all for some, Robert Johnson's sweet devil music is the only embodiment others will accept. But what are either of these greats without the religious bass of a commanding Son House, a life-loving Willie Dixon, the innovating tradition personified in the bear of a man named McKinley Morganfield but baptized Muddy Waters?
The only introduction to the blues could be anthology. For while Charley Patton's drunken thumping is the heart of it all for some, Robert Johnson's sweet devil music is the only embodiment others will accept. But what are either of these greats without the religious bass of a commanding Son House, a life-loving Willie Dixon, the innovating tradition personified in the bear of a man named McKinley Morganfield but baptized Muddy Waters? Are we to leave out the intoxicating hypnotism of John Lee Hooker, the impending doom of Leadbelly, a host of men named Johnson or Blind or Sonny Boy, or a man so crazed by his music he can only be known as the Howlin' Wolf?
The blues transcends every person who plays it, even as it is relentlessly defined by the personalities who bring its music to life. The blues, as an art form, can be both played and examined from every possible human angle; it is essentially as multivocal as it is individual. My blues can never be your blues, Etta James' "Spoonful" does not contain what resides in Cream's, no two versions of "Sweet Home Chicago" can ever be the same, none of us can ever step in the same Mississippi River twice.
This insistent contradiction at the heart of the many musics subsumed under the widest of categories "blues" is at the heart of Martin Scorcese's vast documentary project, The Blues. Based on seven films conceived and created by seven different men, this sprawling attempt to capture the ineluctable essence of the blues has generated an empire of media: seven films, now available on DVD, each with its own CD soundtrack; a five CD boxed set collating this musical material together; twelve albums of individual artists' material contribution to the history of the genre; and one massive coffee-table book attempting to capture all this in print. If the history of the blues is vast and seemingly endless, so it this current attempt, in our nation's self-proclaimed "Year of the Blues", to chronicle what is arguably America's greatest -- perhaps only -- art form.
It must have felt a Sisyphean burden upon Scorcese's shoulders to say something intelligent and full about one hundred years of history in a meager 10 hours of film and twenty hours of music. Seriously. For, as any student of the music knows, the blues is a rather large cottage industry. Since the late '60s, when a revival of interest in the music was aroused by people with last names like Lomax, Charters, and Fahey, thousands of books, movies and albums have been released attempting to explain even the minutest details of blues history. [Or, rather, to create blues history.] Travel agencies help plan "Blues Roots Tours", and the music has a tributary museum in just about every town in the Mississippi Delta where there are enough local citizens interested in generating a buck. And now, even Congress has thrown its hat into the ring, sanctioning a nation-wide celebration of all things red, white and blues.
To capture all that in seven movies is one tall order, indeed. Yet, Scorcese met this overwhelming task in most admirable fashion: eschewing the Ken Burns "say-everything-there-is-to-say" approach, the executive producer of this series has chosen the more appropriate path of the idiosyncratic. While not avoiding his opportunity to make a statement about the music close to his heart, Scorcese allows the light of the blues to be refracted through the wide prism of other adoring fans, who also happen to be quite accomplished film directors as well. In allowing the likes of Wim Wenders, Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis et alia the opportunity to add their own stylistic approach to and personal understanding of the blues, Scorcese allows for a sweeping portrait of this powerful music that makes no false claims about completeness, but importantly captures the very individuated essence of the blues.
Despite this individuated approach, Scorcese's choice of subjects for each of the film's insures that all the major bases will be covered: Delta blues, Chicago blues, African heritage, major players, minor characters, personal narratives, and individual instruments are all given their due. While many of these visions and perspectives overlap the same histories and personalities, there is a remarkable lack of redundancy in the series The Blues; it seems as if fewer than 15 minutes of footage and subject matter repeat in the 10-plus hours of viewing. Scorcese himself is interested in the history of the blues, and allows his vision to take him back to Africa to discover the music's continuing secrets. Personality and poverty drive Wim Wenders's attempt to see the blues through the biographical eyes of its unknown, ill-famed heroes. The Musical Mecca of Memphis is central to Richard Pearce's study; the conflict and continuity between devilish Blues and holy Gospel fuels Charles Burnett's picture. The contemporary legacy of strong black men making a message captures Marc Levin's creativity, while the talented white boys who made the blues their own in the late Sixties entrances Figgis. Clint Eastwood, the inimitably personal piano player, uses the lens of his own passion to discover his blue inspiration.
These films are worth seeing. For both the initiate and the scholar they are important journeys to take. Because the movies, for the most part, roam wide of the road of straightforward documentary, they have the power to serve as important introductions to the blues, as well as in-depth studies of its nuances. Thoughtful, imaginative, and provocative, The Blues deserves to be seen by anyone who has even a passing interest; that curiosity will be rewarded beyond measure.
Luckily for those of us with television sets [but, then again, you're reading this on the internet, aren't you], The Blues was offered as a free gift. But for those of us who forgot to watch, tape or Tivo the documentaries when they were originally aired, viewing these films now costs us either a hefty rental fee at Blockbuster, or an even steeper price if we indulge in buying the DVD collection. If you're interested enough in this series to have read this far into its review, then you need to figure out which price you're going to pay: you need to see these movies if you care this much. Beg, borrow, or pay the steal of a price to own these films for yourself. You will watch them, learn from them, be pained by them, be moved by them, dance to them, and come back to their performances again and again. That's the short of it.
And here's the long. Given that we all have limited time and resources, it might make a little sense to have a guide to the material to figure out how to wade our way through its [avoid the pun] waters. While each of the films is of value, some are more equal than others, as the saying goes. That is especially the case with their soundtrack CDs, as well, which someone had the presence of thought to issue individually. Knowing that I needed a map to figure out my way through the Mississippi Delta, let the following serve as yours, should you find yourself a little lost in the immensity of The Blues' musical meanderings.
The core and center of this project's vision is Martin Scorcese's Feel Like Going Home. Beginning in the sepia-tones that seem to haunt the series, Feel Like Going Home is an attempt to go forward and backward in history at the same time. Opening with archival footage of floods, fields and felling trees, Scorcese tells his story of the blues mostly through small biographical vignettes of the genre's greats: Charley Patton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and John Lee Hooker [listed in order of Scorcese's presentation, not history's.] Interestingly, contemporary artist/inheritor Corey Harris in the film's narrator and interrogator, explaining past legends while conversing and making music with others. [Harris' spontaneous guitar and fife duet with Otha Turner -- playing on a self-made "cane" -- is one of the film's highlights.]
Feel Like Going Home seems to be Harris's journey, and not Scorcese's. While there are obvious affinities between the two men's approach to music, and while Scorcese clearly chose Harris for his movie, the major thrust of the film is lies not in the lengthy historical section -- scripted by the brilliant researcher of modern music, Peter Guralnick -- but rather in the documentation of Harris's trip to meet the music and musicians of Mali. It is in West Africa that history and future coincide: wide shots of the Niger river parallel the footage of the mighty Mississippi; tribal drum and pipe bands create the same music that Otha Turner's granddaughter did in her Delta backyard; Harris and Ali Farka Toure trade American blues lines and African refrains over the driving thump of blues in E. In Africa, Scorcese's opening words meet his movie's closing thought: "I can't imagine my life, or anyone else's, without music," comes full circle to "Once you lose your past, you lose yourself."
Feel Like Going Home is as disjointed and separated as are the two homes of its title, Mississippi and Mali. While these two centers of musical history are seamlessly woven together on the CD companion soundtrack that fails to lose a beat in traveling from America to Africa, the documentary instead comes off as feeling like two separate, yet loosely connected, pieces of work. Yet what the film lacks in perfect coherence, it gains in narrative. Worth the price of admission alone is aging legend Sam Carr telling Harris, "As we die, the music dies with us." Powerful footage of a fiery Son House still has the power to move to tears and joy; even the long-played out Lomax history of discovering the blues is well presented. Scorcese's eye is perceptive, and through it he allows the viewer to see to the elusive and contradictory nature of the blues: his camera shows us minutes of uninterrupted footage of a juke joint packed with people lasciviously grinding to Willie King's slow-blues "Terrorized", a powerful anthem about the fear and horror of lynching. In perhaps the entire series most poignant and thoughtful comment about the blues, Scorcese lets the music and the pictures do the talking.
Wim Wenders allows Blind Willie Johnson to do the talking in his Soul of a Man. Actually, given that Johnson, who recorded his cylinder sides in the late twenties, was dead by 1950, Wenders casts Lawrence Fishburne's as Johnson's surrogate narrator. In Blind Willie's voice are told the alternating stories of loss and redemption, and then redemption and loss, of bluesmen Skip James and J. B. Lenoir. At first, Wenders's faux cinema verite style is an unfair imposition; given the lack of actual footage of Johnson and James, Wenders almost nonsensically recreates their lives on film. Employing actors as unbelievable as his retro-black and white technique, the opening sequences of Soul of a Man -- which actually feature actors lip-synching to 1930s recordings on a Hollywood western-styled set -- can only be described as silly.
Nonetheless, the stories are compelling. Johnson, James, and J. B. are three of the blues' lesser luminaries, which, as Wenders argues with his work, is quite unfair indeed. Wenders makes his case through interweaving history and music, with an eye for making them one. Once the introductory work of establishing the story of the narrator Blind Willie is dispensed with, Wenders moves on to focus more in-depth on the career of Skip James, who rose quickly to a recording career under the aegis of legendary H. C. Speier only to have his now legendary lack of recompense force him to vanish from history's pages within a year of his debut. Wenders tells James's story with a rare grace and dignity, avoiding the mistake of making Skip the legend for a thousand bluesmen lost forever.
As quickly as James departed from the music scene in 1931 was as fast as J. B. Lenoir rose to fame in 1963. Playing in Chicago with Willie Dixon and company, Lenoir quickly earned a name for himself among musicians far and near for a singular approach to blues that steered far from the basic 12- or 16- bar progressions. Lenoir, however, was taken from the music just a suddenly as James: in 1967, he died, following a car crash, as the result of failure to receive treatment in an Illinois Hospital. The true wonder of Soul of a Man is Wenders's discovery of the Seaburgh family, a filmmaking couple now living in Atlanta who created the only video footage of Lenoir in the world's possession. Being shared for the first time in Wenders's film, these two movies -- the first a soundless color take of J.B. playing guitar in garish outfits, and the latter a black-and-white home video of sorts -- offer a rare glimpse into the life of an unknown man. Containing all the awkwardness of art students capturing their idol -- there's translation into Swedish!-- the film of Lenoir introducing and playing his best-known music is revelatory. They provide an incredible glimpse into what Wenders promises with the title of his movie.
Soul of a Man benefits not only from this archive footage, but also from the incredible new material Wenders collected of contemporary artists performing the songs of James, Lenoir, and Johnson. These new versions are tastefully spliced and mixed into the original artists' renditions in the film: Skip James's voice and guitar on "I'm So Glad" instantly metamorphosize into Beck wailing away his electrified harp and guitar on the same number. This type of intergenerational segue occurs frequently throughout the film, and provides its deepest lesson about the power of one man's art to influence countless generations. The technique works so well mostly because the viewer gets used to it, but also because Wenders chose his musicians well. Los Lobos, T-Bone Burnett, Bonnie Raitt, Cassandra Wilson, Lou Reed and plenty more round out the original materials with incredible new insights. Their work makes the film work, and concomitantly makes the accompanying soundtrack album the best and most worthwhile of the bunch. Ultimately, these old/new songs, along with the new/old documentary footage are what make Soul of a Man so valuable; it is to Wenders's credit not only that he found the film and the music, but assembled them into a piece that winds up being greater than a sum of its parts.
The Road to Memphis, Richard Pearce's homage to the Delta's capitol city of the Blues, is much more of one piece. Dedicated to that small radius of Blues history whose epicenter is the famous Beale Street, the film artfully employs the perspective of urban biography to tell a story far larger than any one place. The 2002 Handy Awards Show in Memphis serves as the bookends for this documentary: its opening moments interview legends B. B. King and Bobby Rush as they make their different ways towards this reunion, and the final reel shows us the power still reposed in living legends. In between the anticipation and the fulfilled expectation is told the story of Memphis Blues.
King and Rush would be worthwhile foci of any explorations of the Delta's music; it is to Pearce's benefit, however that both are not only living, but also living a life on the road. These two men share in common belated Grammy recognition and elongated commitment to the blues, yet they are different in almost every other aspect. King sits regally on stage or tour bus, spinning yarns of history with the full authority of an elder statesman. Rush wears a hat advertising his own name, rides a run-down version of King's cruiser, and works in joints more seedy and remote than the large stages that constantly beckon King. Rush is the rogue, and Pearce portrays him as the last circuit-riding singer of his kind; King is the king, and is afforded by director and all involved the full privileges of that nobility.
The dichotomy between the man who has found fame and the man who has found but a meager livelihood drives The Road to Memphis as it makes its stops at all the pivotal places in the Delta's blues history: the musicians of Beale Street; the first all-black radio station, WDIA; the still extant chitlin' circuit where bluesmen cut their teeth; Sun Studios' Sam Phillips who brought success to many black artists before famously landing one Elvis Presley; the ascendance of Soul music in indirect relationship to the Blues' success; and ultimately the long-in-coming white embrace of black music that has allowed some legends like B. B. King an incredible amount of success. With King and Rush narrating this history -- and living it -- Pearce has found an excellent lens through which to share an otherwise well-known history of the blues.
The personalities of The Road to Memphis are what bring it the most exciting moments. Spying on a modern-day WDIA interview with B. B. while he shares reminisces of the local talent shows where he found his first fame are priceless; so too is witnessing the hardest-working man in show business, a Bobby Rush who claims to have been "on the road for three hundred shows a year for 41 years, without six weeks vacation all told". It is in these glimpses into the madcap life of a working bluesman that film's most poignant memories are found. There is one remarkably drawn-out scene at Larry's Place in Nesbit, Mississippi, where a particularly fleshy woman gyrates her rump onstage alongside Rush until it actually sings; contrasted with this are scenes of Bobby in church the next morning, where the crooning preacher matches Rush's onstage electricity by eliciting fits of ecstasy, along with the funkiest of chickens, from his flock. If B. B. King is Pearce's angel, Bobby Rush is the hero whose signifies all the hard-earned victories that wonderfully pave The Road to Memphis.
Charles Burnett is his own protagonist in the autobiographically oriented Warming by the Devil's Fire, a poetic paean to the beauty and violence at the soul of the blues. A rite of passage film based on the reality-based artistic device of personal history, Warming by the Devil's Fire underscores most strongly the notion of the blues as a lore into whose mysteries every initiate must be guided by a mentor. Filling that role for Burnett is his uncle Buddy, an almost stereotypical Southern survivalist who seems never to work, but never to lack. It seems this uncle Buddy, way back in 1956 when Burnett was only eleven years old, kidnapped his nephew away from an intended baptism and instead inculcated him with the religion of the devil's music.
Uncle Buddy guides Burnett as well as his viewers on a tour de force history of the blues. The artifice of a world-wise companion spinning records and yarns allows for a presentation of what is perhaps the best and most thoroughly related historical account in the whole seven-film series. The audience shares with Burnett the excitement of discovering an original "Death Letter" cylinder; all are shepherded gently along the winding roads of the music's journey. Son House, Rosetta Tharpe, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, W. C. Handy, Gary Davis, Willie Dixon, and countless others move from mystical names to understandable people through Burnett's artful combination of narrative, music and archive footage.
Warming by the Devil's Fire does not, however, merely offer a history of the blues. Through a few poignant scenes, and one forced ending, Burnett offers a redemptive vision of the music. Artfully juxtaposing blues with its religious cousin, gospel, Burnett offers an understanding of the ways in which both musical forms saved countless souls. "You may be surprised at who you find in Heaven and who you'll find in Hell," are words the director puts in the mouth of his uncle; the point clearly made by both men and the film in which they come to life is that all judgment -- including that of a musical form known for its violence and misogyny -- should be in abatement until judgment day. If at the end of Warming by the Devil's Fire uncle Buddy has reformed "to become a preacher like so many other blues players", his nephew continues to deliver the family sermon on the holy, graceful, and salvific power of a blues music so godly, yet so unfairly and constantly attributed to the devil.
Family relations, although those of the far more distant variety, are at the heart of Godfathers and Sons. In Marc Levin's take on the blues, rap scion Chuck D and blues heir Marshall Chess trace their roots back through the generations. The film's climax and central theme is a multi-generational recording of "Mannish Boy", performed by musicians who played with Muddy Waters (who brought the song fame) as well as those who find in him inspiration. Filled with reunions of old friends and the making of new ones, Godfathers and Sons attempts to find the connection between blues and the subsequent black music that grew up in its wake; in tracing those lines, Levin stays within the purview of the Willie Dixon quotation that opens the film, "The blues is the roots; everything else is the fruits".
Godfathers and Sons, however, is not of so solitary a focus. Most of the film, while hinting at the impending re/union of "Mannish Boy", tells the story of Chicago blues. A fitting complement to The Road to Memphis, Levin's films details the history of the windy city's blues, mostly through the eyes of eyewitness Marshall Chess. Were it not for the fact that Marshall's dad's company, Chess Records, is synonymous with blues in Chicago, this decision might seem heavy-handed. Yet it was Leonard Chess who brought to life each classic electric recording of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and countless others. That is why, despite his understandable arrogance and slightly annoying habit of hugging everybody, Marshall Chess was such a good choice for a leading man.
Marshall's partner, Chuck D, is an even more inspired choice. A self-perceived historian of his people's experience in America, the Public Enemy frontman is able to assume a professorial role, claiming, "blues, soul, funk and jazz are a map of the way Black people lived in the past thirty years." His insights are frequently the film's strongest; his sensitivities are impressive. For a man who has made his career by filling time with words, and overflowing time with opinions, it is reassuring to see Chuck D sit down for the first time with Muddy's old Elektric Mud band only to say, "Once I'm among royalty, I just sit and listen; you people have a story to tell that needs to be heard."
Levin, with his predominant black-and-white filming technique that, among all seven documentaries, flirts best with artistry, allows that story to be told. Homage in part to Chicago, in part to the generational effect of a culture, it is Levin's sensitivities to details that make Godfathers and Sons so solid. With respect and honor, the director paints a portrait of some blues greats whose luster has faded into poverty and dishealth; they are never Levin's subjects, but always human beings. Furthermore, Levin does not shy away from the often difficult nexus of the Black and Jewish crossing of cultures; instead, he allows his subjects to talk freely of relationships between bosses and artists, and amongst friends. Perhaps the best archive footage in the film stems from seeing all the blues artists at Marshall Chess's bar mitzvah, "the first interracial social event in Chicago history."
Most surprisingly in Godfathers and Sons is Levin's incomprehensible decision not to allow the intergenerational version of "Mannish Boy" to be heard straight through in one piece. [It is left to the soundtrack CD and the DVD bonus footage to rectify this omission, although, frankly, the cut is rather weak] However, by the time the film arrives at this gathering of black artists, it seems as if Levin realizes that his documentary never really needed the conceit of a new recording session to bring its various characters together. As Chuck D says to his compatriot Chess as the drawn-out recording process comes to a close, "Fuck the film, this is for real." This is the great statement of Godfathers and Sons, namely that the music called the blues carries within itself the power to create connections so strong that it can turn rank strangers into fathers and sons.
In Red, White and Blues, director Mike Figgis studies this same potency of the blues. The subject of his examination is of wider range than the train ride from the Delta to Chicago: Figgis's theme is the history and historical implications of white British boys playing black America's music. It is a strange cultural phenomenon that holds Figgis's attention: in the late '60s, a bunch of lads from England -- some with now-household names like Eric Clapton and Van Morrison -- began to listen to blues music from America to which white Americans refused to lend an ear. Only filtered through the British Isles did this indigenous art form meet with widespread success on U. S. shores. That is took a cross-cultural migration to make the blues popular with all Americans leads Figgis to ask the two questions at the heart of Red, White and Blues: how did Southern blues make their way North to England, and how did British interpreters of American music help it find such success?
The investigation into the blues' arrival on England's shores is more interesting in theory than Figgis makes it in fact. Bizarrely beginning to address the question with a history of the post-war jazz scene in London, the film fizzles at its outset with a remarkable slow start. The pace quickens noticeably once Skiffle enters the picture; Lonnie Donegan offers helps insights into the first British-ized brand of the blues. From Skiffle, Figgis examines the many channels through American art made its way to the Empire: the clubs that served as London's breeding ground, the visiting musicians who taught locals to play, the prized trade of imported records, and even Armed Forces Radio receive their due in this regard.
Set against the background of this history are interviews with the luminaries greater and lesser of the British Invasion: Mick Fleetwood, Steve Winwood, John Mayall, and Georgie Fame amongst many others. Fleetwood exudes a youthful sense of awe at the opportunity to have spent time with so many great musicians; Winwood speaks from the perspective of a conservatory-trained pianist who came to the blues from the outside in. Mayall, who probably is, speaks as the granddaddy of the whole movement: articulately, with authority, and always on the mark. Clapton's insights are most helpful in shedding light on his own career; he describes the stubborn commitment to blues purity that led to his split from the Yardbirds, and also remarks on the indulgencies of Cream that brought on that trio's demise. Most interestingly, Clapton describes the feeling he had as a young boy to be The One who made the entire world care about the blues music. Say what you want about ego, but he's done a good job.
Tom Jones's ego, however, just gets in the way. Figgis constantly cuts to a contemporary recording session of British bluesmen reworking old classics; Red, White and Blues itself opens with powerful footage of Van Morrison proving his worth. Unfortunately, a voice like Van's is replaced with the crooning Jones, who can match neither the virtuosity nor the feel of the man next to whom he constantly sits, Jeff Beck. All too often Figgis shows these two men who seem to share nothing but generation and homeland listening to old blues sides: Beck plays along with the classic lead lines in style, while Jones worthlessly echoes the words he seems to be hearing for the first time. [Much of this music-making is captured on the companion CD, which is worth buying only for hardcore Beck fans; the rest should otherwise go out and buy any of his albums, each of which pleasantly lack Jones's presence.] The interplay of Jones and Jeff cuts to the heart of the movie: there is an interesting theme and conflict, but nothing magnificent follows.
Ultimately, Red, White and Blues contains some wonderful histories and pleasant snapshots, but fails to rise to the great promise of its fundamental questions. For only in the film's closing minutes does Figgis address the deepest issue of the documentary: the intercontinental interplay of musicians with such varying backgrounds. B. B. King, the only non-British bluesman in the whole movie, offers a most moving salute to his English counterparts when he offers the film's closing thought, "If it wasn't for British musicians, we black Americans would still be catching Hell� Thank you all very much." And while King's insight is profound, Figgis does not play this notion -- the most interesting aspect of the documentary's thesis -- to its fullest extent. That is why, amongst the many films under The Blues' aegis, Red, White and Blues winds up being the least satisfying.
Because its ambitions are not as high, Piano Blues winds up being a nice little gem at the series' close. Director Clint Eastwood, known to those who know for really playing the piano in all those scenes in his movies, attempts not to unravel any great mysteries surrounding the piano or the blues, but only to present an introductory conversation to the meeting ground of the two subjects. The lightest of all the documentaries, Piano Blues predominantly features the director interviewing the living stalwarts of the genre; spliced amongst these conversations are fantastic footage of men and women creating incredible music on uprights, babys, and grand pianos alike.
The focal point of Piano Blues is Eastwood's interview with Ray Charles. Taking up almost a third of the total screen time, Charles walks us all through his introduction to piano playing, as well as the development of the various genres of blues in which his instrument has flourished. Seeing the gritty Clint sharing a piano bench with the jovial Ray is the movie's highlight; Eastwood has pulled off a pairing far more endearing and meaningful than any other ebony and ivory attempt. Interestingly, Eastwood is able to keep up with Charles, and all his other subjects as well, when it comes to piano blues history; he really knows his stuff. More compelling, from an historical point of view, is Charles's absolute admiration and respect for his predecessors and contemporaries. It is a neat insight into the artist's mind to hear Charles talk about Nat "King" Cole, claiming, "I wanted to be like him, playing those sweet fills behind his singing"; it speaks for itself to hear Ray talk about Oscar Peterson with the brief epitaph, "that motherfucker could play his ass off."
What distinguished Piano Blues from the remaining documentaries of The Blues is its commitment to letting the music speak for itself. [It should be noted that this same commitment makes the accompanying album almost equal in potency to the film; it is incredibly worthwhile.] Eastwood simply lets the music play, and we are granted spectacular visions of the title's promise: from Professor Longhair plunking out a solitary "Tipitina", through the more classical blues stylings of Pinetop Perkins all the way through Dr. John tickling out a little history lesson on the ivories about Thelonius Monk's blues roots. The ability to showcase the breadth of the piano's connection to the blues is the film's solitary theme: history is merely anecdote to allow Clint to roll the proverbial videotape. This showcase mentality is actually the documentary's greatest strength; it is when Piano Blues enters too briefly and simply the thorny thicket of explaining the connection between blues and jazz that the film reaches its only moments of disappointment. For ultimately, the great contribution of Piano Blues is Eastwood's convincing argument on the overwhelming versatility of not only the piano, but the blues as well.
The seven films that comprise the vision of The Blues's musical journey are of value in and of themselves. The DVD packaging allows for certain bonus materials to be attached to the films, and while they are at times additive, they are never the prime attractions; for the most part, they actually fall short of delivering anything truly different. [Note especially Piano Blues, which adds no bonus materials whatsoever save Eastwood's film credits as actor and producer.] While many of the films contain full-length segments of the movie's soundtrack for one's listening pleasure, the choices of material for this footage is not always the strongest material. Ultimately, while some of the extras are neat, none of them are revelatory, as, for example, a full screening of the Seaburgh documentary of J. B. Lenoir would have been if appended to Soul of a Man. Actually, the greatest benefit of the DVD packaging is the format itself, which allows not only for maximum clarity, but lets the viewer easily sort through chapters and title to see their favorite segments again and again.
That is the reason to possess The Blues, by hook, crook, or any other means. It is simply worth seeing, again and again. And again. For long after the U. S. Congress forgets it ever cared about the blues, long after this momentary revival of public interest has passed, long after all the original artists are unfortunately dead and gone, this documentary series will remain as a lodestone of materials, footage and music that finds seven compelling ways to tell the story of The Blues. And it's a story worth hearing.