There's a chance you may have seen Mario Van Peebles' new musical drama Redemption Road even if you've never heard of it. Opening Friday in eight cities (Nashville included), it was slated to be released a year ago as Black, White and Blues — the title it played under at the 2010 Nashville Film Festival, where it won the Rosetta Miller Perry Award. But Van Peebles expresses no anger about the lengthy delay or the title change.
"The film is about the journeys a person takes and the struggles they encounter in discovering who they are, what they want to do with their life, and where they are going," Van Peebles said last week by phone. "This title emphasizes that character evolution and speaks much more to the point of the film. I wasn't interested in just doing another film where you see nothing but destruction and sadness. This is a story about people from different backgrounds who find common denominators and manage to get beyond the things that divide them in a very real fashion."
Shot in Nashville, Redemption Road follows Jefferson Bailey (Morgan Simpson), a gifted but floundering guitarist plagued by self-doubt. Bailey uses alcohol and rage to obscure his insecurity — a holding pattern that's interrupted by a stranger (Michael Clarke Duncan) who arrives at his home in Austin with a mission.
This mysterious benefactor wants to take Bailey back to Alabama, where a safety-deposit box left by his late grandfather contains something special. As co-scripted by Simpson and George Richards, their journey from Austin to Alabama has its share of memorable and agonizing stops. But when Bailey arrives, a former love (Kiele Sanchez) and a savvy club owner (Tom Skerritt) point toward a new direction in life.
Along with local performers such as Chris Woodson, who plays Bailey's father, the film includes a host of outstanding musical performances from familiar names such as Cissy Crutcher and James "Nick" Nixon, as well as Gary Clark Jr., Alabama Slim, Little Freddie King, Minnie Murphy and Cydney Robinson.
"We wanted to change things up a bit, so we made the white character be the blues guy and the black one the country lover," Van Peebles says. "I also got to write a couple of songs for the film, which was a wonderful thing for me because I've always had a strong love for music." The poignant tune "Pick Your Friends Wisely," the director's contribution, shows how seriously he took the challenge of songwriting for a film shot in the cradle of country music.
"Filming in Nashville, a place with such rich songwriting tradition and so many great musicians, there was no problem getting the musical backdrop we needed," Van Peebles says. "The whole point was to show the closeness between blues, country and gospel, and to demonstrate that contrary to what some people think, the music brings people together across boundaries rather than keeps them apart due to race. You can hear in the stories the essence of blues and country, and just how much each has influenced the other."
Redemption Road also includes a cameo from a screen legend, Van Peebles' famous father Melvin. This year marks both the 40th anniversary of Melvin's groundbreaking indie Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song — whose making Mario depicted in his cult-movie tribute Baadassss! — and the 20th anniversary of Mario's hit action thriller New Jack City. Though he's learned from filmmakers like Clint Eastwood, who directed him in Heartbreak Ridge, he says he's been shaped most by his father's hard-won wisdom.
"My father taught me very early you have to know everything in this business," Van Peebles says. "If you're dealing with the studio, you have to know how to handle them, and if you're doing an independent film you have to know how to find the money to keep it going. My dad's one of the most honest people I know, and he has no problem telling me if what I'm doing doesn't work. He'll just say, hey, that sucks. Or he'll say, yeah, that works. If you don't want his honest input, you don't ask him what he thinks about something."
Mario Van Peebles has forged an extensive career as an actor and director. His next film is We The Party, co-starring Michael Jai White and Snoop Dogg, and he also directed the first episode of Kelsey Grammar's new Starz drama Boss that debuts in October.
"What I always look for in any project is something that excites me and doesn't just go back over the same ground," Van Peebles says. "When you're working with exceptional actors like Michael Clarke Duncan or Kelsey Grammer, then you get the juices flowing. Michael really wanted direction for his character, so he'd come to work every day with ideas, suggestions and questions. When you get that from an actor, you put yourself into a project even more as a director."
As for that project, its maker finds its release better late than never. "I think audiences will find Redemption Road an honest and straightforward story, " Van Peebles says. "It has taken a bit longer for it to get in theaters than I hoped, but I think what we have now is true to the spirit and original intention of the project. I feel it works really well."
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