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Beginning with a stirring African folk song (Zélié performed by Angélique Kidjo) the roots are established and rapidly swell into a trunk thickened by the hardships of the Great Depression (Gamblin' Man performed by David 'Honeyboy' Edwards) and the oppression of segregation (Jim Crow Blues performed by Odetta). Finally, this Blues family tree shows off vibrant new growth as it reveals the Blues' influence on our modern wealth of talented musicians (Midnight Special performed by John Fogerty and Hound Dog done by Macy Gray). Ruth Brown gives Blll Cosby a full-throttle serenade (and a playful smoldering gaze), along with Mavis Staples and Natalie Cole. Angélique Kidjo persuades Buddy Guy to an unforgettable rendition of 'Voodoo Child,' shortly before Bonnie Raitt and Robert Cray accompany B.B. King and Lucille for the final number, 'Paying the Cost to be the Boss.' This documentary presents to the audience, with authority and candor, an authentic history of this musical form. The ... Written by
[referring to a crowd that booed him once after his name was announced]
At first, they didn't care nothin' about the blues. They didn't know nothin' about me. The reason they booed 'cause it was blues. When they said "blues", hey, it's like being black twice.
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I just got back from watching this movie and have to say I was quite disappointed. You have a stellar lineup of musicians who are going to show us a thing or (fifty) two about playing the blues, so what does Fuqua do? Alternate for most of the running time between sending his cameras all over the place and going in for tight closeups to watch people emote. It's even worse with the handling of the guitarists (disclaimer: I am one): show us what they're doing with their hands, not their faces. Better yet, show both. B.B. King is almost completely mishandled in this respect after he plays his intro.
This was always the worst thing about concert movies from the 1960s especially--the cameramen are always pointing in the wrong place. This, for example, is why the coverage of Jimi Hendrix in "Woodstock" is so terrible and why Austin City Limits, say, is consistently so great. It is about the MUSIC, folks--the performance is about everyone on stage and what they're doing with their whole body. Let them do their thing and don't try to juice it up by moving that camera all over the place. Scorsese knew this when he made "The Last Waltz" all those years ago--you would have thought he could have passed on a hint or two to Fuqua about how to make a concert film.
A case in point: my spoiler. Now, my spoiler is actually about singers, not the guitarists, though I won't spoil things totally by naming a name. Suffice it to say that a very famous comedian comes on stage to be the foil for Ruth Brown, Odetta (I think), and Natalie Cole (I think) when they sing, "Men Are Like Streetcars." See, they're supposed to sing these lines about how men are like dogs, and the comedian is on stage to react to everything for the enjoyment of one and all. Now, John Cleese in talking about the Monty Python movies once spoke about how to set up comedy shots. He pointed out that you pretty much always want a two-shot. That is, you want to see the person telling the joke and you want to see the person reacting in the same shot. This maintains the rhythm of the joke, as the two performers cue each other for greater effect. Send the shots back and forth and it's easy to lose the rhythm of the joke, the timing of the punchline.
Well, what do they do for "Lightning"? THEY ZOOM IN FOR CLOSEUPS AGAIN ON THE WOMEN AND DON'T SHOW THE COMEDIAN!!! We don't get to see the comedian reacting to the horrible things said about men AS THEY ARE BEING SAID. That's what's going to make them even funnier, and that's what's going to make him seem really funny, too! We lose the joke, we lose the reason for this guy being on stage, we lose the rhythm, we lose the timing. Oh, sure, we get the occasional cut back and forth, but the effect is simply not the same and the viewer is left wondering, "Why did he even come on the stage in the first place? He is a very funny man (oops, spoiler!) and that was about the most unfunny appearance of his I've ever seen--no, not 'unfunny,' but 'didn't even get a chance to be funny.'" What a waste. He's just comic relief, but the choices of camera angle and movement in his segment symbolize the cinematographic problems with the whole.
To top it all off, my sense is that a fair number of guitar solos were simply cut out. Either that, or a lot of folks were told not to do one. Goodness, the song John Fogerty played cries out for a long solo at the end, one he does in the original recorded performance and did again in his concert film (more satisfying than this film, but they should have shown more of his band--he ain't makin' all that noise up there by himself!). Where is it? Granted, the filmmakers doubtless wanted to get this one in under two hours, but a helluva a lot of the blues is about long jam sessions while everyone boogies down--and I'm not talking about 60s/70s rock version of the blues, either.
So, what you get with this movie is a lot of performances that are reasonably strong, a couple of weak ones, and a handful that are just great (Solomon Burke, the Neville Brothers, and the just-too-cool-for-words Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown come to mind instantly). All in all, however, the busy camera work spends more time screaming, "Look at me and all the places I can send a camera!" instead of just letting the music stand on its own. The truncations or cutaways that get made right when the music really kicks really dampen the overall effect (man, SHOW me Buddy Guy and Vernon Reid trading licks, not Angelique grooving to it--let us see WHAT she's grooving to without interference, nice though watching her shake her thing may be). I wouldn't buy the DVD even for the extra performances; this one is a renter. There's too many distractions even for the standout performances (look at that footage of Son House or Hooker from the 1950s--one camera, one focus, and far more compelling than most of the "Bottle" footage). It's definitely worth seeing once if you're into the blues, but there's nothing that demands you to go back and review it once the film has finished. And if you're a musician, you'll cry at the lost opportunity.
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