Neither a hard hitting exposé nor critically acclaimed undercover investigation, Scorsese's film is a sort of coffee table documentary, delighting its audience with some great stories and incredible music. It fails to go deep or uncover anything new but might help to bring the blues to a whole new audience.
The first thing that struck me about this film was its look. Scorsese has a reputation as one of the greatest film makers of his or any age and we are used to his highly polished latter work as well as his grittier, earthier beginnings but this film is unlike anything I've seen from Scorsese before. It feels cheap and basic, like one man and a camera, and not a great camera at that. A lot of the footage is grainy and dark and it doesn't appear to be particularly well made in several places. Even the editing is a little slapdash. Although I tried to put this to one side, I could never quite get over it. I understand that the budget must have been low but I'd expected something a little flashier or at least more polished from Martin Scorsese.
The actual content of the documentary varies wildly. Sometimes it's a little dull but often it's incredibly interesting and insightful and always with a terrific musical backing. After a brief top and tail discussion of the blues journey from the plantation to modern rock 'n' roll, the film slowly wanders back in time, through Chicago and down into the Mississippi Delta, the heartland of the blues. Along the way Corey Harris, himself an extremely accomplished musician, if not great front for the documentary meets and interviews the likes of Willie King and Otha Turner. Each blues artist he meets performs, sometimes with Harris accompanying him and tells stories about the old ways and where the music came from.
What's interesting is how the blues developed and was passed down from father to son between Memphis and Vicksburg. From field chants and tales of pain and injustice to The Rolling Stones and Jack White, the blues has undergone many changes but this documentary focuses on what it really is and where it came from. Some of the old time stories are fascinating and evoke an age now long passed. It's obvious that the older blues players are disheartened by the loss of the old ways and one of the best interviews involves fife player Otha Turner. Turner was said to be one of the last fife and drum players still around at time of production and sadly passed on before the film was released.
A large chunk of the documentary concerns the preservation and capturing of the blues before it's lost. Special mention is given to Alan Lomax who travelled the south in the 1940s recording songs which would have otherwise never been known outside the Delta. The film makes its own attempt at some preservation with a delightful performance by Turner which marks its conclusion.
After exploring American blues, Corey Harris travels to Mali in West Africa to uncover the spiritual home of the music. He meets musicians and compares the folk music of this region to his own, discovering many similarities from the beat to the pentatonic scale. Some of the interviews in Africa verge on spiritualism which occasionally took me out of the film but I nonetheless enjoyed the music.
Throughout the film there are fantastic performances as well as achieve footage from some of the best known blues players and lesser known men including John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Son House and Robert Johnson. The music is fantastic but the documentary doesn't go far enough for me. It doesn't delve very deep or uncover much that wasn't already common knowledge but what it does it help to continue Lomax's work and preserve for posterity some of the great figures in Delta blues music and allow their sound to reach a large audience.