You have to go back there. There’s no other way to do that sort of concert. It didn’t start down South, it started in another place, a more soulful place. And then that was taken to these other places.
— Antoine Fuqua, Interview, “Los Angeles, 10 February 2004”
For director Antoine Fuqua, it was clear that the right place to start a concert imagining the history of the blues would start with a song from Africa. In a brief interview included on the new DVD of Lightning in a Bottle, Fuqua recalls his early discussions with “Mr. Scorsese,” and their decision to structure the evening and the film as a bracing, stark chronology, moving from one continent to another, in order to underline the specific points of creation and the “universal” appeals of the blues. That first song is a traditional, “Zélié,” performed by Angélique Kidjo, and it is stunning, at once sad and potent, assertive and eloquent.
Some minutes later, in one of the film’s many bits of interviews with blues performers, the amazing Ruth Brown announces, “This is the survivors’ club.” 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.”
The documentary is at once deliberate and agile, showcasing the performances with appropriate veneration as well as a provocative energy. As Fuqua puts it in his DVD interview, he was looking for a bluish tint, a feel that called up juke joints — even in the middle of Radio City Music Hall. The film’s dynamic mix of expression and mood, helped along considerably by innovative cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, is initiated in the program’s organization; the film’s executive producer 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order, with illustrative backdrops (film clips of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, as well as photos and historical documents such as slave auction announcements).
Fuqua recalls, “That night was like a tornado, man, it was just unbelievable for me. I’ll never forget it.” He’s struck especially by the sincere reverence the performers show one another. “You go to like rap concerts and stuff, they’re fighting each other, at rock n roll concerts they’re beating people up. These guys were truly respectful of each other.”
Fuqua’s sense of the beauty of the moment has to do with the privilege of meeting artists whom he admires — people who, he says, “just stay themselves,” no puffery and self-love — and in part it has to do with the sweep of history evoked by the concert. Part temporal and part geographic (from the rural South to the urban North), the journey begins with “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 DVD includes five bonus tracks, wonderful performances by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes, Mos Def, Buddy Guy and Chris Thomas King.)
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 Angélique 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” (Fuqua, who directed her as well in Training Day, makes special note of her courage in performing this song, “surrounded by that much talent”) to Tyler and Perry’s consummate “I’m a King Bee” (a song they seem 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.