The Road to Memphis / Godfathers and Sons / Red, White & Blues – PopMatters Music Review )

Director: Marc Levin

Director: Mike Figgis

by Kevin Jagernauth

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Martin Scorsese’s ambitious documentary series The Blues brought together seven directors, each directing their own 90-minute film. Though it occupied a week on PBS, spawned various soundtrack CDs and an accompanying book, The Blues wasn’t quite the rousing success that was Ken Burns’ Jazz. With each director bringing their unique style to the documentary process, it’s difficult to see The Blues as a unified, comprehensive study of the genre. Instead each episode is its own tribute to the blues, creating an interesting, if ultimately scattershot history.

Directed by Richard Pearce (Leap of Faith, The Long Walk Home) and Robert Kenner, The Road to Memphis ventures into the rich musical history of this Tennessee city. Home to Sun Studios, Soulsville and Graceland, no other city epitomizes rock ‘n’ roll like Memphis. Rather than a straight historical look at the city, Pearce instead follows B.B. King, who has become the face of the blues for America and Bobby Rush, who makes his living on chitlin’ circuit with a unique style that mixes soul, funk and blues. By choosing two musicians of varying status, Pearce allows for a view from both the top and the bottom, showing a city rich in musical history that has been cleaned up and commodified for tourist dollars.

Pearce brings the focus first to WDIA. The first radio station in America to be completely programmed by and for African-Americans, it was the home to some the finest players in Memphis history including B.B. King and Gatemouth Moore. Originally a country, pop and classical station, owners John Pepper and Bert Ferguson were faced with having to close their doors, as they could not compete with their rivals whose programming was largely the same and a developed audience. As a last ditch effort they tried programming exclusively for the 40% African-American population of Memphis and quickly found success. WDIA played an important role in developing the fertile music scene in Memphis as well as serving as the voice for the African-American community. On WDIA’s website, a quote from Moore perfectly sums up the importance the station had for African-Americans in Memphis:

“I remember when the black ambulances could not haul white people. They had a white company, I’ll never forget, called Thompson’s. I was on my way to the station, and when I come around the curve there was the ambulance from S.W. Qualls with the door open, and there was a white lady laying in the ditch, bleeding. And they were waiting for Thompson’s to come and pick her up. Qualls couldn’t pick her up. I guess I waited thirty or forty minutes and still no ambulance. They tell me that the lady died. So I came to WDIA and told the tale. I said, ‘Look here.’ I said, ‘Black folks put their hands in your flour and make your bread, they cook the meat, they clean up your house, and here’s this fine aristocratic white lady laying in the ditch bleeding and they won’t let black hands pick her up and rush her to the hospital.’ And the next week, they changed that law where a black ambulance could pick up anybody. I got that changed on WDIA.”

Next, Pearce and Kenner take us to Beale Street. Once a seedy but vibrant area, rife with music, gambling, and prostitution, Beale Street was a strip that came alive at night with the sound of the blues emanating from almost any open window. In the 1970s, the City of Memphis purchased three block of Beale Street, redeveloped it and created a tourist attraction. As Pearce and Kenner take us around Beale Street with some of the musicians who made their living there, it’s sad to see the community destroyed, forgotten and rebuilt for Kodak moments. The blues on this street went from being of central importance to an amusing sideshow from the past.

The latter half of the film brings together King, Rush, Moore and other Memphis names including Ike Turner (who earlier in the film has an astonishing conversation with the late Sam Philips of Sun Studios) and pianist Roscoe Gordon for a performance at the W.C. Handy Awards. As the film moves closer to its finale and ultimate tribute to the city, Pearce and Kenner inadvertently bring an interesting issue to light. Looking at the audience, producers and directors of the show they are largely white. There is a not a young, African-American face to be seen. Pearce and Kenner unfortunately fail address or bring up the fact that young African-Americans are listening to hip-hop, and the blues, has found its following in recent years largely with middle-aged whites. It would have been interesting to hear what the likes of King (who comes close to tears in a touching story about his first show for an audience of whites in California) would have to say about African-American audiences, or the lack thereof, at blues shows.

As the film closes, King returns to his throne atop the blues world, and Rush heads back out his bus for another gig in another juke joint. Roscoe Gordon, the quiet, elderly pianist who has been largely forgotten, we learn has passed away just six weeks after returning to Memphis. It’s a quiet moment, illustrating how lost the history of the blues in Memphis has become. The Road To Memphis is an interesting, if narrow and safe documentary. Never fully exploring the connections to Graceland and Soulsville, The Road To Memphis fails to make evident the wide-reaching influence Memphis blues had. Taking a turn north, director Marc Levin (The Last Party, Whiteboys) sets his sights on Chicago, but more importantly on the historic Chess Records, in his film, Godfathers And Sons.

Founded by Polish brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess, also owners of the Macamba nightclub, the duo created a virtual monopoly on blues recordings by Chicago artists. John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed all made their mark with Chess. Godfathers and Sons takes an interesting approach in mining the Chess legacy. The film brings together Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Marshall Chess, son of Leonard Chess, to create a modern day tribute to Muddy Waters’ controversial Electric Mud.

First released in May 1968, the album was an attempt by Chess to remake Waters as a psychedelic, electric blues guitarist. The album was a critical failure, and blues purists were horrified. Together, Chuck D, who cites the difficult Electric Mud as the first album that got him into the blues, and Marshall Chess, reunite the session players on Electric Mud with hip-hop artists Common and the Roots. Using samples from the original album, the group hits the studio, to once again attempt to redefine what the blues can be, as Muddy Waters did with Electric Mud.

As much as the gesture seems genuine, one can’t walk away from Godfathers and Sons without sensing the smug self-satisfaction that seems to be present with everyone involved in the Electric Mud project. Marshall Chess routinely talks about his father’s achievements, rather than the history of great records and artists that made Chess famous. Chuck D, a usually very eloquent and pointed speaker, seems strangely at bay. In the studio, Chuck D notices a gleam in Marshall’s eyes that suggests that he is thinking about something other than the recreation of the Waters’ historic session.

But most troubling is the fact that both Levin and Chuck D, carefully avoid discussing the shadier aspects of the Chess Records business. Muddy Waters was once quoted as saying, “Leonard didn’t know nothing about no blues.” The question of whether they were music lovers, intelligent entrepreneurs or somewhere in between has been a source of debate in music circles. Responding to the charge that his father exploited the artists on his label, Marshall Chess offers a passionate if somewhat unconvincing defence that goes unchallenged.

The reprise of the Electric Mud sessions don’t come off as inspiring as everyone involves thinks it is. Instead, Godfathers And Sons is somewhat self-congratulatory. Rather than paying tribute to the city, and more importantly the artists that made Chess famous, Marshall Chess, Chuck D and the rest of the featured musicians revel in their own recognition of the blues.

Perhaps then, it is not surprising the most humble film of the three is Red, White & Blues. Director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, Internal Affairs) takes a direct and simple approach to his documentary and the results are all the more comprehensive and powerful. Reaching back all the way to the jazz scene that erupted in Britain during World War II, it follows British interest in African-American music through folk, skiffle and eventually into the blues explosion that prompted the British Invasion of the 1960s.

What is most striking in Red, White & Blues is the reverence the musicians have for the blues even until this day. Without the claim to ownership their American counterparts have, the British are humbled and awed by this music. This is only film of the three which even addresses the issue of whites playing what is considered “black” music.

Interviewing a wide range of British musicians including Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Lonnie Donegan and Jeff Beck, Figgis gives a thorough account of the fertile scene that developed in post-war Britain. From the Flamingo and Marquee clubs, to buying import American releases, the British truly celebrated the art form that their American brothers all but neglected (but would rediscover when the Beatles and Rolling Stones would wash upon their shores).

With some stunning archival footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (proving she can rock just as hard as the guys), Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, and unexpectedly beautiful blues renditions by Tom Jones (who has never sounded better) and Lulu, Red, White & Blues is as compelling as it is informative.

For a genre of music that was borne out of hardship, and featured some of music history’s most powerful and poignant material, its striking how tame The Blues is. Neither The Road to Memphis or Godfathers and Sons address some of the thornier issues surrounding their iconic subject matter, nor quite have the impact that they should, especially for their subject matter. Red, White & Blues, however, exceeds expectations, with an admiration that is both sincere and heartfelt.

As a final note, it is somewhat troubling that in the opening credit sequence for each of these films, the first image we see of African-Americans is a shuck-and-jive dance number that borders on being minstrely. Martin Scorsese, and the producers of the The Blues surely could’ve done better to make sure that the first image of African-Americans in this important series wasn’t one so mired in stereotypes.