Film

Lightning in a Bottle (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

The sensational Buddy Guy is his own, allusive story, as he incarnates a bridge between generations and styles.


Lightning in a Bottle

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Buddy Guy, B.B. King, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Solomon Burke, Angélique Kidjo, Chuck D, John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt, Macy Gray, India.Arie
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Sony Classics
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-10-22 (Limited release)
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"This is the survivors' club," announces Ruth Brown. As the camera looks over the musicians assembled for a commemoration of the blues at Radio City Music Hall on 7 February 2003, her description, at once personal and communal, makes clear the ache and joy that make the music. "In my lifetime, it's a very special day, and it's a long time coming on."

Lightning in a Bottle, Antoine Fuqua's documentary of that remarkable concert, is at once deliberate and agile, showcasing the performances with appropriate reverence as well as a provocative energy. This remarkably dynamic mix, captured by innovative cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, is initiated in the program's organization; the film's executive producer Martin Scorsese (also producer of a 2003 PBS miniseries on the blues) introduces the show as a narrative "history," meaning it takes up a chronological order, with illustrative backdrops (film clips of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, as well as photos and historical documents such as slave auction announcements).

Part temporal and part geographic (from the rural South to the urban North), the journey begins with African-born Angélique Kidjo's moving performance of the traditional "Zélie," prefaced by the assertion, "They took away our people, they took away our drums, but there is one thing they did not succeed in taking away, and that is our voice." The collective voice that emerges here includes performances by Mavis Staples ("See That My Grave is Kept Clean"), David "Honeyboy" Edwards ("Gamblin' Man"), Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown ("Okie Dokie Stomp"), Bonnie Raitt ("Coming Home"), Solomon Burke ("Down in the Valley"), and, of all people, Natalie Cole reaching all kinds of surprising depths on W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues."

The film is full of standout performances, most rendered as entire numbers (a few include voice-over interviews or observations, explanatory glosses that are helpful but a little distracting too). The sensational Buddy Guy is his own, allusive story, as he incarnates a bridge between generations and styles, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix, who drew on Guy's work, as he in turn inspired Guy. This circle comes round again when Guy returns for another, apparently unplanned performance, convinced by Kidjo to play as she sings Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." It's a rousing collaboration, with Vernon Reid as well. All participants look as thrilled to be conjuring their magic as you are to hear them do it. At times Guy looks quite knocked out by Angélique, the camera wandering over his face as he smiles and watches, all the while playing the hell out his instrument, utterly comfortable and jaw-droppingly brilliant at once. The film, for all its inspired good fun, is at base about the exchanges that make music work as well as live -- between artists, eras, and experiences. What makes Angelique so able to feel that Hendrix song anyway? You can only feel glad that she shares it, so generously, hopefully, and urgently.

The movie is concerned with politics, certainly, given its subject matter. The blues is a music about oppression, yearning, and movement. It's a music of protest and joy, and, as Raitt puts it, "pain and juice." True, it's not a little jarring to note the well-heeled audience for this perfect but also anomalous evening at Radio City, as the images and stories behind the music insist on the dire costs paid by the very artists here celebrated. The blues is a music of legacy, bearing witness and weight. It invites you to rejoice in its existence, but understand your responsibility to its history. While Lightning in a Bottle often touches on ecstasy, it never lets you forget, either.

And yet it is tempting to lose yourself in the night's incredible execution, with a house band that includes Dr. John, Keb' Mo', Levon Helm, and the night's musical director Steve Jordan -- who looks fit to burst with happiness on drums. The show doesn't so much build to a climax as it does continuously excite, from India.Arie's performance of "Strange Fruit" and Macy Gray's strangely evocative "Hound Dog" to Steve Tyler and Joe Perry's consummate "I'm a King Bee" (a song they seem rather born to perform together) and Chuck D and the Fine Arts Militia's revision of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" as a magnificent anti-war anthem. Watching Chuck D in a suit explode all over the stage underlines the ways that music transcends genre and expectation to inspire movements, of bodies as well as communities. The final performer of the night, B.B. King, recalls an early performance of "Sweet Sixteen," when he was booed by a Southern audience who rejected the "blues" as a concept. By the time he was done playing, he says, they were won over. And how could they not be? His show this night, with U.S.-flag-patterned guitar strap, reveals the power of the blues to uplift and sustain.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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