Shades of the Blues 

Martin Scorsese’s PBS special is loaded with problems, but has its share of unforgettable moments

Martin Scorsese’s PBS special is loaded with problems, but has its share of unforgettable moments

PBS’ participation in this congressionally proclaimed “Year of the Blues” consists of a week’s worth of films by luminaries like Wim Wenders, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, who produced the entire project. Sunday night’s kickoff documentary, by Scorsese, is typical in that it succeeds when focused on the artists, in this case the old masters Son House, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, in addition to contemporary performers like Willie King, Taj Mahal and the late Othar Turner. Indeed, the performance footage throughout the series is invaluable. But the expository “conversations” between Mahal and Corey Harris sound ploddingly scripted, and the many historical errors reveal that the dog ate somebody’s homework.

More strangely, Scorsese’s African segments make the Dark Continent seem less interesting and exotic than Mississippi, the birthplace of Skip James and J.B. Lenoir, whom Winder highlights in Monday night’s The Soul of a Man. While James’ life and work are well known, Lenoir’s aren’t, and through Winders we see a bluesman keenly in tune with his times, with “Down in Mississippi” and “Vietnam, Vietnam” mirroring American greed and savagery at home and overseas.

Tuesday brings the series’ high point, Richard Pearce’s humanely brilliant The Road to Memphis, which weaves together the stories of B.B. King; Rosco Gordon, who died right after the film’s completion; and entertainer extraordinaire Bobby Rush, who will surely gain the greater audience he deserves via the release of Pearce’s film. Warming by the Devil’s Fire, on Wednesday, fails as drama but glows when director Charles Burnett maintains focus on Bessie Smith, Elizabeth Cotten, Victoria Spivey and other great female blues singers. On Thursday, Marc Levin presents Godfathers and Sons, which spotlights label owner Marshall Chess and rapper Chuck D. Despite the charismatic intelligence of the latter in this episode, the central argument—that rap is the truest descendent of the blues—is unconvincing. Friday and Saturday nights will cover, respectively, the effect of blues on British music in the early ’60s, as chronicled by Mike Figgis, and piano blues, directed by Clint Eastwood.

There are a many things wrong with Scorsese’s project, including factual blunders, racist revisionism, lack of cultural understanding and clumsy dramatizations. The greatness of the project consists in the archives it has pulled together and preserved, as well as some unforgettable moments with contemporary bluesmen, like King and Rush. Do such accomplishments balance the bad? Hell, yes. It’s the devil’s own truth.

—Diann Blakely

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