- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

Ever since Congress declared 2003 the “year of the blues” and Martin Scorsese produced his travesty of a PBS series, the blues has undergone a secular deification.

The process is typically American. As an art form calcifies through years of repetition and the inevitable passing of its originators, we try to enliven it through popular history. We assign it a place in the sociological sweep of events.

The blues isn’t dead, but official nostalgia is one way of making it seem that it is.

The living funeral: That’s what director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) was up against last year when he filmed the Salute to the Blues concert, a legend-studded celebration at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Thus we see relative newbies such as Macy Gray, India Arie and Shemekia Copeland intermingled with all the legends.

But “Lightning in a Bottle,” which chronicles the show and its backstage drama, is a joy to watch because oldsters such as B.B. King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Buddy Guy are still such interesting people — and players.

Mr. King speaks of being booed as a young man by an audience more interested in rock and soul than the blues. He recalls crying as he sang the aching “Sweet Sixteen.” Solomon Burke — a soul singer, but “Lightning” is a big church — describes the “neckbone circuit,” which paid even less than the famously low-rent “chitlin circuit.” Mr. Brown gives bluegrass singer Alison Krauss a comical backstage demonstration on the fiddle.

Some of the performances are top-notch; some not so. Natalie Cole is surprisingly gritty singing W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” Ruth Brown is a pistol on “Mama, He Treat Your Daughter Mean.” Mr. Guy smokes on Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied.” The Neville Brothers funk things up on “Big Chief.”

Pairing New York Doll David Johansen with Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin probably seemed like a good idea on paper. It didn’t work in person. Mr. Johansen simply tries too hard and comes off clownish. Rapper Chuck D makes a mockery of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” turning it into an anti-war, anti-Bush protest song.

Using archival footage of Klan rallies, lynchings and chain gangs, Mr. Fuqua imparts a backward-peering social conscience to the blues. This is well-intentioned but undercut by a clip of the late Son House laying down the law on what is, and what’s not, the blues. Young artists, he said, were slapping the label on any old song.

The blues is the exclusive preserve of what transpires between two people in love, he insisted. The definition may seem too small a room for Jim Crow and other American maladies that Mr. Scorsese, Mr. Fuqua and others have found in the rich sediment of the blues.

I think Son House’s definition is a mansion: It transcends time and place. Which is what the blues can still do, if we let it.

***

TITLE: “Lightning in a Bottle”

RATING: PG-13 (Brief profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Produced by Margaret Bodde and Alex Gibney. Executive-produced by Martin Scorsese.

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.

com/lightninginabottle

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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