A PBS series from director Martin Scorsese is a love letter to the American music. But it avoids tough issues, including why young people ignore it.
PBS' new film series, The Blues, has a great pedigree: Executive producer Martin Scorsese spent five years assembling a dream team of seven filmmakers to capture the essence of the music in a series of short films.
High-profile Hollywood players such as Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven), Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club), Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) and Scorsese himself offer the promise of seeing master storytellers excavating this most American of art forms, airing at a time the U.S. Senate has declared the Year of the Blues.
So why is The Blues sometimes so unsatisfying?
One explanation: It skirts too many important, yet uncomfortable, issues surrounding the blues' progression from a music created by black people at the center of black culture to a niche genre mostly outside the mainstream of black people's lives.
The series' creators say they were trying to find a new way to tell an old history.
"My work has always been fueled by music. . . . A lot of how I imagine a film, or visualize a film, I usually play this music," Scorsese told journalists in Los Angeles earlier this year via satellite from a film set in Montreal. "It became a long kind of detective process about the origins of the music. I thought this might be an interesting way . . . to let younger people know, and those around who don't know, where the origins are."
True enough, the films in The Blues unfold as love letters assembled by true fans who picked their pet subjects. Wenders' The Soul of a Man looks at his three favorite bluesmen (Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and J.B. Lenoir), and Charles Burnett's Warming By the Devil's Fire outlines the story of a boy who learns about the blues during a trip to visit family "down South" in the '50s.
And these all-star directors drew an all-star cast. Wenders tapped artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Vernon Reid, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Cassandra Wilson and Los Lobos to re-create James' and Lenoir's work. Figgis' Red, White & Blues, describing the 1960s explosion of the blues in Britain, enlisted Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, Tom Jones (really!) and Mick Fleetwood, among others.
In Feel Like Going Home, Scorsese charts the evolution of the music from Africa to the Mississippi Delta, with appearances by Malian singer Salif Keita and contemporary American bluesman Kevin "Keb' Mo' " Moore. Meanwhile, pianist Eastwood's Piano Blues has Marcia Ball, Dave Brubeck and Pinetop Perkins explaining the Oscar-winning filmmaker's passion for blues cooked up on the keyboard.
The world's most famous living bluesman is a subject of Richard Pearce's The Road to Memphis, which traces B.B. King's evolution as a performer alongside the blues' evolution in his legendary hometown.
"Beale Street was a haven for the black man who came up from the Delta. . . . It was heaven," soul/blues singer Rufus Thomas (Walking the Dog) says in Pearce's film, speaking about Memphis' club-filled road. "I told a white fella, "If you were black for one Saturday night on Beale Street, you wouldn't want to be white no more.' "
Nuggets such as these pepper The Blues. It's a project tailor-made for PBS, with well-known names introducing the public television audience to artists it may not know, with history and performance clips mixed in to build a potent stew.
"I discovered the blues in the '60s, and for me, it was an incredible ingredient of the image of America," said Wenders, a native of Germany, in July. "I knew America through the movies . . . books, photography and magazines, and the blues was like a correcting voice to all of that. The blues was another side of America, and it was very clear to me that it was at least as true as everything else."
Still, like a finely crafted love letter, these films sometimes sidestep the ugly questions: For example, how do we reconcile some baby boomers' adulation for blues legends with an industry that has never rewarded black artists with the riches showered on white rockers who took the blues to the mainstream?
What about British artists such as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Beck and Eric Clapton's Yardbirds, who made fortunes copying the songs of U.S. bluesmen? Do they owe something besides compliments to the guys whose material helped make them legends?
Is it possible to take such a loving look at the roots of the music, and its cross-cultural blending, without directly acknowledging this inequity?
It's hard to know, because The Blues rarely tries.
Another issue The Blues sidesteps is that young people, especially young black people, don't listen to the blues anymore, except perhaps when a younger artist they care about tackles the form.
In particular, I was hoping this might be explained by director Marc Levin's Godfathers and Sons, which tracks Marshall Chess, heir to the Chicago blues record label Chess Records, as he hangs with Public Enemy impresario Chuck D. To many young people, especially young people of color, the blues is something their grandparents or great-grandparents listened to - a corny, out-of-step style, hardly the foundation of all the music they hear now. At most of the blues concerts I attended as a music critic in the '90s, the audience was older and overwhelmingly white.
But Levin focuses on Chess and Chuck D.'s work assembling a recording session with the surviving players from Muddy Waters' Chess-produced 1968 album Electric Mud and hip-hop rappers and DJs. It's an extended commercial for a project that simply assumes rap fans will be interested in the blues, an odd conclusion given today's MTV-fed times.
"Young people today, they don't even follow an artist from five years ago," Chuck D. says in Levin's film. He was meeting the players from Electric Mud, a psychedelic reworking of Waters' classic style that critics lambasted back then for slapping a commercial, rocked-out face on the bluesman's work.
The result, judging by the clips of studio jams featured in Levin's film (including rap artists Common and the Roots' Ahmir Thompson), is well-intentioned, if a little strained. Turns out, loping blues grooves are tough to rap over, and the resulting gumbo of sound isn't likely to please fans of either genre much.
And though all this history and collaborating across generations is fun to see, the deeper issues - how young black folks got distanced from the blues and how that could kill the art form - go unexplored.
"I guess, by opening (the blues) up to a much wider audience, it does take it away from its root, core audience," said Figgis at the July news conference. "Hip-hop music and rap and all those things - pretty much all popular music, one could say - just by three short hops comes from the blues. Therefore, maybe a younger audience, or a younger, black audience, is not going to look to the historic model of what the blues is."
Unsurprisingly, Figgis makes one of the most musician-friendly films. A former trumpet player, he composes the scores for many of his films and once played in a band with singer Bryan Ferry that was a precursor to Ferry's art-popsters Roxy Music.
Figgis' Red, White & Blues chronicles the spread of the blues in England, tapping notables Beck, Morrison, Winwood, English folkie Lonnie Donnegan (interviewed just before his death last year) and others to outline how the Brits warmed to this earthy new sound in the '60s.
Of particular note: Morrison's blistering take on a midtempo blues tune with Beck, Jones, pianist Jon Cleary and a crack band, filmed at Abbey Road Studios in London.
Figgis' film gives viewers some of the best musical explanations of electric blues' power, with musicians such as Beck and keyboardist Georgie Fame often pecking at a guitar or piano to illustrate a point. The director has his all-star band run through covers of several classic blues numbers in an open room, the way many classic blues sides were recorded.
The film also tries to respond to some controversies about how the blues moved to the white mainstream, presenting British rockers as the people who saved blues from the dustbin of U.S. pop culture, getting white youths in America excited about previously marginalized black blues artists.
"If it wasn't for the British musicians, a lot of us black musicians in America would still be catching the hell that we caught long before," B.B. King says in Figgis' film. "So, thanks to you guys. . . . You opened doors that I don't think would have been opened in my lifetime."
Still, the highlight in each installment of The Blues remains the performance footage of old blues masters, whether it's Levin's modern-day film of Koko Taylor kickin' it in a Chicago club or Wender's display of vintage clips showing bluesman Lenoir strumming in the living room of a Swedish-American couple.
Watching these amazing performances unfold, you just know there's one heck of a soundtrack album out there somewhere. As it turns out, there's a host of so-called "ancillary products" related to The Blues on store shelves and online, including a companion book (Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues, Amistad Press, list price $27.95); a DVD set of all seven films, set for release Tuesday ($139.98 in DVD, $119.98 in VHS videotape); a five-CD boxed set ($69.98); a streamlined, 21-song soundtrack ($18.98) and individual soundtracks for each film ($18.98).
Scorsese said the films were assembled mostly to help excite those who don't know much about the music.
"I never really think of how successful it's going to be; I just want to get the word out there," said the director, whose musical movie credits include the Band's 1978 farewell concert, The Last Waltz, and editing the 1970 film Woodstock. "It was (our) way of pulling all of this together and understanding it's part of our culture and getting young people excited about it. . . . We made the idea that music like this just doesn't . . . stop."
Still, by minimizing some thorny questions, airing on older-skewing PBS and offering a blizzard of high-priced tie-in products, The Blues feels more like a valentine to the nation's blues-loving baby boomers than any attempt to reach new ears.