In time for centennial,
Originally published in Current,
June 16, 2003
A sprawling treatment of American music hits PBS this fall — and, no, Ken Burns isn't behind this one.
The Blues, PBS's biggest musical series since Jazz three years ago, explores another quintessentially American genre. The seven-part series begins airing Sept. 28 .
The network hopes the cumulative star power of its directors, who include Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Wim Wenders, will drum up interest and draw viewers.
Both Jazz and The Blues honor genres that grew from humble roots and went on to change music around the world. Yet there are key differences.
While Burns took heat for skimping on jazz's recent history, The Blues takes pains to show its music thriving in new forms. One film bridges generations to unite rappers and old-school bluesmen on record. Others present scores of modern-day performances, some exclusive to the series.
The Blues also sings in a panoply of directorial voices. Scorsese, the series' executive producer, allotted himself and six other directors the same budgets to tackle chronological slices of the music.
The results, says series producer Alex Gibney, are "improvisations riffing off a central theme." The Blues aims to capture the music's spirit rather than its particulars.
"So as long as the music gets conveyed, in a sense it doesn't really matter the year Leadbelly was discovered," says producer Margaret Bodde. "If you hear the music and experience the music, we've accomplished our goal."
The series airs during the Year of the Blues, a congressionally decreed celebration marking the year, 1903, when W.C. Handy, "The Father of the Blues," first heard the music.
Handy earned his title for helping to popularize blues, which developed in the deep South from African roots and black traditions including spirituals and work songs. Muddy Waters and other Southern musicians took the blues to Chicago and other cities, inflaming it with electricity and inspiring the birth of rock 'n' roll. Their swagger, sexuality and heartfelt musicianship also fed funk, soul, jazz and rhythm-and-blues.
Blues casts an immeasurably long shadow but today lays low in the public eye, eclipsed by its spinoffs. The record industry doesn't track sales of blues as its own category. Recent estimates suggest albums account for less than 2 percent of music sales. Radio abounds with the music of its progeny, who range from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin. The genuine article gets scant airtime.
Producers of The Blues hope it will boost appreciation of the music beyond its hardcore fan base. A barrage of products and promotional tie-ins is calculated to invite a new crowd to the party. The Year of the Blues encompasses not only the TV series but a book, a DVD, a public radio program (story at right), a line of compact discs, educational outreach materials and a celebration that will travel to music festivals around the country.
Boston's WGBH is promoting and marketing The Blues and Volkswagen is the exclusive national sponsor. PBS put the series at the top of its fall schedule and gave it the extra hype that comes with designation as one of the season's "pop-out" shows.
One film airs each night through the week of Sept. 28. The idea is to present the series as a "film festival," says Anne Zeiser, director of national strategic marketing at WGBH. Viewers may not watch every installment, she says, but should tune in based on the topic or the director.
Half of the funding for the $8 million project comes from the German company Road Movies. The rest comes from Vulcan Productions, the company founded by philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Vulcan is also co-producing The Blues. Formerly Clear Blue Sky Productions, Vulcan co-produced Evolution with WGBH [earlier article] and is now working with the station and National Geographic on two more multipart series for public TV.
Allen's Experience Music Project, the Seattle music museum, is co-producing the blues radio series and overseeing educational outreach for the project.
The music, in many forms
Long before Allen or PBS entered the picture, The Blues began with Martin Scorsese. Scorsese served as e.p. for From the Cradle, a 1995 PBS special about Eric Clapton. That experience inspired the director, a fan of the music, to document the genre in greater depth.
Scorsese approached Allen for funding, knowing the philanthropist's love of music. PBS, which joined the project in 2000, was "our ideal broadcast venue," Bodde says.
"Everything about the program feels like PBS to us," she says. "It's the audience that we're speaking to, for the most part."
Scorsese and Bodde had started planning a single film. The idea to make it a series came from Gibney, who signed on as series producer.
"We were ideally looking for directors who had made both feature films and documentary films, and who loved the music — or who we presumed loved the music, based on their work," Bodde says.
Director Mike Figgis, whose installment of The Blues looks at the music's impact in '60s-era England, scores his own films, including 1995's Leaving Las Vegas. Charles Burnett featured blues prominently in his early film Killer of Sheep. Wim Wenders turned classic Cuban music into a recording industry phenomenon with his Buena Vista Social Club documentary, which also aired on PBS. Scorsese himself directed what Leonard Maltin called "arguably the finest concert movie ever made," The Last Waltz.
Each director got a budget of less than $1 million, a paltry amount by Hollywood standards. (Scorsese's last movie, Gangs of New York, cost $100 million.) To keep costs low, much of the series was shot on digital tape rather than film.
Blues in all forms, acoustic and electrified, vocal and instrumental, throbs throughout the films. Producers tout the series as "personal and impressionistic." All of the films previewed — five of the seven, in excerpted form — eschew the omniscient narrator of other documentaries.
Three rely mostly on interviews and on-site footage — conventions of documentary filmmaking. In one film, director Richard Pearce trails bluesmen B.B. King and Bobby Rush in "The Road to Memphis," contrasting the crowds the two draw. King recalls a '60s concert at the Fillmore West, where long-haired white kids greeted him with reverence. Seeing the throng, King thought he was in the wrong place until a promoter set him straight.
"That got to me so much I couldn't stand it," King says, almost overcome with emotion. The movie shows him in the present day, still attracting a devoted white audience.
By contrast, Rush is still struggling to make it big on the Southern "chitlin' circuit," staging bawdy and exuberant shows and donning a flashy, James Brown-style getup for mostly black audiences. To Pearce he predicts he'll be "as big as bubblegum."
In an unforgettable scene, one of Rush's dancers shakes her ample rear in ways that seem to defy laws of physics while onlookers howl. With his ear close to the jiggling mass, Rush yells, "It talkin' to me!"
The most distinctive episodes, from Wenders and Burnett, mix documentary techniques with re-enactments and fictional storytelling. Burnett's film, "Warming by the Devil's Fire," delves into the tensions — between men and women, religion and sin — that shape the blues. The semi-autobiographical story focuses on a 12-year-old boy who goes South to visit an uncle and glimpses a temptingly seedier side of life.
"He knows he's supposed to be in church," says Burnett, whose own mother and grandmother often battled over the place of blues and religion should hold in his upbringing. "But he also partly enjoys being with his uncle, who's sort of irresponsible."
A Social Club of blues?
Wenders' film, "The Soul of a Man," strays farthest from the traditional documentary form. An excerpt opens in outer space, where a blues recording traveled with the Voyager spaceship in 1977, and brings the viewer to Earth to meet the singer himself, Blind Willie Johnson.
Johnson and other artists appear in black-and-white footage that appears archival but was actually shot by Wenders using a vintage silent camera, complete with hand crank and a black cloth to cover his head. The musicians in these faux-verite scenes are in fact actors. Wenders mixes this material with real stock footage of Southern life, giving the film an intoxicating air of mystery.
"The Soul of a Man" includes intimately shot performances by contemporary musicians interpreting the music of Johnson and the film's other subjects, Skip James and J.B. Lenoir. Beck, Marc Ribot, Lucinda Williams and others appear.
Reviewing "The Soul of a Man," screened at Cannes, Variety said the film had "the stuff to go way beyond music fans, doing for the blues what the director did for Cuban music in The Buena Vista Social Club." The film will have a limited release on its own in Europe.
Blind Willie Johnson is played by Chris Thomas King, who also played a bluesman in the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? To appear blind in close-ups, King says Wenders had him wear painful contact lenses that obscured his irises. Viewers at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year were fooled into thinking the footage was real, King says.
King treasured appearing in "Soul" but speaks excitedly about another film in the series, "Godfathers and Sons," that depicts a fusion of hip-hop and blues.
In 1968, Muddy Waters recorded Electric Mud, a foray into psychedelia intended to court the white audience. It bombed with critics but decades later unexpectedly inspired the hip-hop generation. Director Marc Levin unites Electric Mud's musicians with hip-hoppers Chuck D and Common, who mingle rapping and record scratching with the fat, bluesy grooves of Waters' ensemble.
King himself has mixed blues and hip-hop for a decade. Only recently did acting become a side career. He's had trouble succeeding commercially with his music because traditionalists and record labels want to freeze the blues in time, he says. But he hopes The Blues will loosen up the scene.
"This thing has potential," he says. "It's going to leave people with the impression that this is an evolving music."