The Blues, a television series initiated by Martin Scorsese, clearly has two sources of inspiration: Ken Burns' sober and painstaking Jazz series, and Wim Wenders' joyous concert film Buena Vista Social Club (1999).
Most of the contributions to the series have the same basic form: historical information is imparted in conjunction with archival footage of the blues greats, while contemporary performers are assembled for jam sessions or re-interpretations of classic songs.
Both Scorsese in Feel Like Going Home ( ) and Wenders in The Soul of a Man ( ) add an odd, irritating touch: they print the songs' lyrics on the screen, as if we are in some danger of not catching or understanding them ourselves.
Perhaps the idea is to monumentalise these words into a form of poetry – which, of course, they are. But this solemn inscription goes hand-in-glove with a certain tendency to overly mythologise blues music – to keep it tidily boxed in the past as the authentic soundtrack of the African-American experience of slavery.
As any fan or scholar of popular music knows, no style ever stays in one time, place or mode for very long. Music's destiny is to perpetually 'cross the tracks'. Scorsese's reverential tribute tends to downplay this fact, but other episodes open up the issue with greater gusto. Wenders brings in his coolest mates (Nick Cave, Beck, Lou Reed) to radically rework the standards, while Mike Figgis' surprisingly enjoyable Red, White & Blues details (mainly in spoken accounts) the rapid-fire mutation of blues in Britain via skiffle, jazz and rock.
It will be a pity if the Scorsese and Wenders episodes receive the most attention from audiences. The Soul of a Man is the best and worst of Wenders. It has a bloated, grandiloquent, show-off quality – especially with its framing 'cosmic' footage of outer space – until, mercifully, it concentrates on the uncovering of precious amateur footage of J.B. Lenoir performing in a lounge-room in the '60s. As in Feel Like Going Home, this tribute works best when its gives some sense of how the blues has travelled: across countries, across time, through scary holes of oblivion, unfashionability and the dark mass of what has been never or only fleetingly documented – and not all in one direction, backwards to Mother Africa. (The almost God-like treatment given in the visuals to Ali Farka Toure by Scorsese is the worst, misjudged moment of his film.)
Like Scorsese – who uses as his guide and mouthpiece Corey Harris, a terrific muso but rather gormless interviewer – Wenders is a little too fond of sweeping statements in booming voice-over (read by Lawrence Fishburne). And in both cases the genuflection to a black perspective feels a little smuggled-in, anxious and phoney.
Warming By the Devil's Fire ( ) has been praised for being the only film in this collection directed by an African-American. It can equally be commended for according respect to women's contribution to the history of blues – in all the other episodes, blues is presented as an overwhelmingly male affair.
Serious cinema buffs have yet another reason to single out this contribution: it marks, I believe, the first film from the thirty-year career of the great American filmmaker Charles Burnett ever to be commercially released in Australia. This alone is enough to make one sing the blues.
But the real reason to see Warming by the Devil's Fire is that it is quite simply the best in the series. Burnett does not overly mythologise the blues. He takes a more modest, everyday approach to his subject, which he presents through the charmingly low-key story of a young boy (Nathaniel Lee, Jr) taken under wing by a renegade uncle (Tommy Redmond Jones) in Mississippi.
Without making a big song and dance of it, this film manages to be the most politically and socially informed of the series. From the first image, Burnett constructs a beautifully lyrical weave of voices (Carl Lumbly speaks the lovely narration scripted by Burnett), stories and archival clips. This is a history that belongs to everyone, great or small. There are no ostentatious tricks, as in the Scorsese and Wenders, with re-treated footage or gregarious concert get-togethers.
It is fascinating to compare different uses of the same material across the films. In Feel Like Going Home the unforgettable footage of Son House singing "Death Letter Blues" makes a point about distinctive percussive rhythm, and offers yet another irascible old male. A glimpse of Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Red, White & Blues serves mainly to bolster George Melly's recollection that she was often "randy on brandy" while touring Britain.
But when the same artists appear in Warming by the Devil's Fire their music suddenly means so much more. An entire fabric of social experience, of work and play, suffering and resistance, comes pouring out of the montage.
© Adrian Martin June 2004