- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

It has been 100 years since jazzman W.C. Handy first set down a blues song on published parchment and now, in commemoration of the “Year of the Blues,” comes a multimedia onslaught — a slew of blues CD reissues, a public radio campaign and, beginning Sunday night on PBS, a documentary miniseries executive produced by director Martin Scorsese.

“Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey” is supposed to do for the blues what Ken Burns did for jazz: unearth its roots, trace its cultural legacy and celebrate the genre’s best performers — famous and forgotten.

The seven-part, weeklong series comprises individual documentaries directed by seven filmmakers, including Mr. Scorsese himself and the Oscar-winning amateur pianist Clint Eastwood. Mr. Scorsese and Wim Wenders (another directorial contributor) alone are responsible for two of the great music documentaries of recent decades, “The Last Waltz” and “Buena Vista Social Club,” respectively. You’d think the series can’t miss, but alas, “The Blues” is an impressionistic patchwork of competing visions, overlapping footage and repetitive aphorisms; if it were a college term paper, it would warrant an F: convoluted organization, incomplete research and stylistic inconsistency.

The blues deserves better.



“The Blues” is watchable and intermittently instructive, but it could’ve been more — more exciting, more insightful, more comprehensive. Drowsily paced, it could’ve been more fun, too.

Underlying the myriad faults of the series is a fundamental misdiagnosis of the overall health of the genre: The blues of “The Blues,” while enormously influential in its day, is today a beleaguered thing; it’s in retreat, neglected, wearily resilient.

You would never know — because “The Blues” doesn’t tell you — that there’s a critically venerated and surprisingly successful band called the White Stripes that has made the blues avant-garde again. Or that a filthy-rich and mass-popular band like Aerosmith doesn’t think it’s a bad career move to make an all-blues album, which it plans to release next year. Or that there are young blues-guitar classicists like Joe Bonamassa, Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd doing pretty well for themselves on the touring circuit.

Granted, these are all white practitioners of the blues, but then, doesn’t that fact further underscore the durability and universality of the form?

To its credit, “The Blues,” in “Feel Like Going Home,” the Scorsese-directed installment airing Sunday night, makes a point of highlighting young black bluesmen such as Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Keb’ Mo’. However, they’re shown as static revivalists, understandably interested in the blues’ distant past but unconcerned with its future.

Blues music, as this miniseries tells it, is preserved in formaldehyde: an important historical specimen on museum display, a cultic text of esoteric interest only to a few savvy young adepts.

It was important and necessary for “The Blues” to return to the Mississippi Delta where the blues was born and to remember the indispensable musicologist Alan Lomax. It was important, also, to note the wicked social stratifications under which antebellum blacks suffered and expressed, through nascent blues and gospel, their joys and sorrows and frustrations.

But on a trip to the West African country Mali, where Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Harris try to dig even deeper into the musical and cultural origins of the blues, the sociological turns sociopolitical, unnecessarily and irrelevantly.

Conversing in French with Mr. Harris, Ali Farke Toure, a popular world music guitarist based in Mali, asserts there are “no black Americans,” only “blacks in America.”

That doesn’t sound like Martin Luther King, and it doesn’t sound like B.B. King, either.

Worse, it says nothing about what gave rise to the distinctly American form that is the blues. “The Blues” illustrates this broadly in pictures — there are innumerable montages of chain gangs, cotton fields and muddy river water and marshland — but fails to tell a compelling narrative.

When “The Blues” presents an interesting linkage or a bright insight, it’s almost always accidental. In “The Road to Memphis,” a look at one of the blues’ major urban nuclei, the director Richard Pearce snatches a passing comment from the singer Bobby Rush: He says he observes the same people from his Saturday night romps in church on Sunday mornings.

They’re looking for the same kind of inspiration at both places, he says, interestingly.

Charles Burnett’s “Warming by the Devil’s Fire” — a lamely dramatized tale of a young boy’s day in blues-rich New Orleans, spent with a wayward uncle — stabs at a similar point: that the blues, essentially, has a dual nature, high and low, sublime and devilish, spiritual and sexual.

It would’ve been nice if this idea had been developed in one go, rather than in two dangling, unresolved references.

Elsewhere, “The Blues” is similarly scattershot. “The Soul of a Man,” directed by Mr. Wenders, carves out dramatized memorials to the country blues legend Skip James and the obscure electric bluesman J.B. Lenoir, intercut with performances by modern-day artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams and Los Lobos and, ludicrously, a meditation on Lenoir’s views on the Vietnam War.

Blind Willie Johnson, Mr. James and Mr. Lenoir are clearly favorites of Mr. Wenders’, but in a miniseries with limited time, can fully one-seventh of a 100-year journey be devoted to just three figures, who, Mr. James excepted, are fairly minor and noncanonical?

While “The Blues” lavishes considerable, and deserved, attention, on blues greats such as Mr. King, Son House and John Lee Hooker, its meandering pace leads to some unforgivable omissions: notably of Buddy Guy, who, although he was one of the most influential and urbane of the early electric blues guitarists, rates only a passing mention and is never pictured.

Laziness abounds on “Red, White and Blues,” too, an episode that focuses on the cross-pollinated British musicians of the ‘60s, such as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, who repackaged the blues for white American audiences that, because of racial barriers, had never heard the sounds that took root in their native soil.

It brings up the Beatles, who were only marginally influenced by the blues, but fails to mention Led Zeppelin, who were greatly influenced by the blues and took the form to innovative new heights in the ‘70s.

Mr. Eastwood’s “Piano Blues” is, like the man himself, straightforward and quietly effective, but the best episode of the series is Marc Levin’s “Godfathers and Sons,” an imperfect but lively and amusing example of what the whole project should have been: a celebratory account of the past and a peek at what might be in store.

“Godfathers” is the story of Marshall Chess, whose father and uncle, Leonard and Phil Chess, respectively, founded the legendary blues stable Chess Records in Chicago, the blues’ second great urban center.

While Mr. Levin rekindles memories of Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, “Godfathers” also follows rappers Chuck D and Common as they, along with a reunited psychedelic blues band that Mr. Chess formed in the ‘70s to introduce a new generation to the music of the great Muddy Waters, try to do something new with the form.

The newfangled sounds they produce are messy and slapdash, but that’s as it should be: The blues is still a work in progress.

It also remains the foundation of American pop music, from funk to soul to Motown and, inevitably, to rock.

True, the blues is getting harder to hear amid the increasingly segmented racket of electronica, discordant metal and synthetic dance pop, but it’s there lurking on the margins, beckoning to young guitarists eager to dig beneath the surface of the guitar heroics of the likes of Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Underneath they find Hubert Sumlin, Albert King, Blind Willie Johnson …

The blues is still there, too, in the elemental backbeat of hip-hop, which wouldn’t exist without the antecedent sounds of funk, which in turn owes its existence to the blues.

The story of the blues is still being told. It’s a good thing, too, because “The Blues” leaves so much unsaid.

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