Some may think it odd that Martin Scorsese’s latest project is a series of films called The Blues which he executive produced for PBS in America to celebrate 100 years of the blues. However, it’s not entirely out of character for him. Although Scorsese has a long and legendary history as a feature director with films such as Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Gangs Of New York to his name, he’s also made music documentaries like The Last Waltz (1978) about The Band.
Blues music has a special place in American and world music in general and is considered the basis of many contemporary styles, including rock, hip-hop, funk and urban. The roll-call of artists in these seven films is too extensive to go into but the series pays homage to great blues icons such as Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mississippi John Hurt, B.B. King and Bessie Smith, some minor but fascinating performers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her wild guitar and gospel stylings, as well as covers by artists as varied as Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D and Public Enemy, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Salif Keita, Nick Cave, Lucinda Williams, the Rolling Stones, Lulu and Eagle Eye Cherry.
The seven filmmakers behind The Blues are Martin Scorsese, who directs Feel Like Going Home exploring the African connections; Wim Wenders directs The Soul Of A Man about three blues figures, Blind Willie Johnson, J.B. Lenoir and Skip James; Mike Figgis directs Red White And Blues, about the blues’ impact on British rock; Marc Levin directs Godfathers And Sons, featuring Chicago blues and a history of the legendary Chess record label; Richard Pearce directs The Road To Memphis, the story of Beale Street; Charles Burnett directs Warming By The Devil’s Fire, about the great southern blues artists; and Clint Eastwood directs Piano Blues. Unfortunately, Eastwood’s film is not being screened in Australia.
Each director was given an open brief to explore their own vision of the genre and to emphasise the music rather than dates, names and places. Scorsese, Burnett and others go against the straight doco-format, preferred by the likes of Ken Burns in his Jazz series, and use fictional recreations as well as archival footage while Figgis plays it straighter.
On the whole, The Blues is a rich journey into a vital music. While making no claim to be definitive it’s a must for anyone who loves music. The main let-downs are too few full-length performances and the preference, at times, for modern interpretations rather than originals. Some of the series is uneven. For instance, Wenders’s film uses too many snippets and feels a little hectic and Scorsese’s is an interesting journey though a bit loose. But Marc Levin’s tribute to Chicago blues is solid doco-making and Figgis’s is a fascinating exploration of the sometimes bizarre confluence of white players and black music that resulted in the Brits taking blues-inflected rock and pop music back to the US in the 1960s and being thanked for it by none other than B.B. King.
The Blues screened at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals and won the Cinema Audio Society award for sound mixing, which is why it should be seen on the big screen.
INFO: The Blues film collection will screen in Sydney at the Chauvel and Valhalla cinemas from 13 May for a limited season.