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Author: WatchingTheHerd Big red star, 1000 posts Feste Award Nominee! Old School Fool Add to my Favorite Fools Ignore this person (you won't see their posts anymore) Number: of 5902  
Subject: The Blues on PBS Date: 10/4/2003 3:06 AM
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Recommendations: 7
Wow.

I've just finished watching 6 of the 7 episodes of The Blues. I want my 9 hours back!

This is not only a poor collective documentary on the blues, but one of the poorest productions I've seen hit PBS in a long time.

Background on the Reviewer (that would be me). I consider myself a blues fan, somewhat knowledgeable guitarist / musician and own a good chunk of the material directly or indirectly referenced by the content of the series.

Background on the Series. The series was underwritten in part by Paul Allen, of Micr$oft fame, through his private investment company, Vulcan Ventures. Allen's a big music fan and HUGE Hendrix fan and has contributed mucho dollars to the Experience Hendrix Museum in Seattle. Martin Scorsese, whose musical history includes The Last Waltz, the film of The Band's last concert performance, directed the first of the 7 films and provided some sort of overall direction to the assembly of the other films. What that direction was is not at all clear from watching the films, as detailed below.


OVERALL PROBLEMS WITH THE SERIES

I think the overall problem with this series is common to the problem with other PBS documentary series in the past 3-5 years: too much money being made available to a producer who is too emotionally attached to his subject. I think this is an outgrowth of the success of the original Ken Burns "Civil War" documentary, which then attracted tons of corporate dollars to support a week long series on Baseball, then Jazz. One complaint about the Jazz series was that a newbie (Ken Burns) picked an expert (Wynton Marsalis) to help provide historical direction to the series. However, the expert, noted for fairly strict "purist" views of the subject, colored the entire series with this single viewpoint, resulting in a series which many people felt did not provide due treatment to other aspects deemed unimportant to the purist.

"The Blues" seems to have this problem writ small. Since each of the 7 films was produced separately by a director who was an avowed fan of his very narrow subject, the overall series seems to demonstrate all the fanaticism of the "Marsalis" problem without even the benefit of a common editing thread to tie the series together. This seems most obvious in terms of the music included and span of years covered.

Despite probably 10.5 hours of air time, the amount of unique material actually included seems very small and many examples (Hootchie Cootchie Man, Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had, Key To the Highway) appear several times in several of the films. An obvious result of allowing 7 different directors to create 7 different films without a unifying thread of direction or editing. It also seemed to me that the choice of examples seemed more like the choices of a "blues purist" rather than someone trying to hook you on something that might be unfamiliar but would catch on if you started more gracefully. Kinda like a classical music fan who INSISTS on first playing you Wagner's Ring Cyle or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring instead of a Strauss waltz, Beethoven sonata or even Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue to introduce you to orchestral music.

Through 6 of the 7 films, the overal span of music covered seems to virtually stop at 1968. However, I suspect that for the vast majority of the audience, most of their initial exposure to this material started through exposure to Jeff Beck (in Truth / Jeff Beck Group days), Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and Allman Brothers material. Though LZ was less honest about crediting their sources than the rest, most of us figured out pretty quickly that "E. James" and "M. Morganfield" and "W. Dixon" and those other strange names merited additional research and listening. While Jeff Beck appears throughout film 6 in the jam session stuff with Tom Jones and Van Morrison, the film itself NEVER MENTIONS his role in 60s rock or that he took the chops learned playing this stuff to expand into his 70s fusion phase and other directions since. In short, unless you're already a blues afficianado, the casual rock/pop fan will come away with NO UNDERSTANDING whatsover about how much of the music they DO like was influenced by the blues. THAT'S THE POINT OF THE ENTIRE SERIES and it misses the target completely.

FEEL LIKE GOING HOME

Film #1 of the series produced by Scorsese that focuses on the original delta roots of the blues and its roots in gospel and African roots. Writing about it 5 days later, I can't even remember enough about the content to "review" it in any depth. The only basic point I remember is that many of the now-cliched lines in blues songs about "My woman treat me so mean," etc. are actually references to foremen of the work crews and working conditions on the plantations under which many of the original artists worked. You couldn't complain overtly about the boss man so the songs were instead about "my woman" which sailed over the head of the too-literal-minded whites.

THE SOUL OF A MAN

A "conceptual" film that tries to provide some background on Elmore James, Blind Willie Johnson and J.B. Lenoir. I'm sure the main reason this approach was taken was due to the obvious lack of historical film or recordings to fill 90 minutes. However, the recreated segments just seem like normal PBS / Ken Burns documentary stuff that is flawlessly produced but just rings hollow. I have to confess, I had not really heard of J.B. Lenoir except indirectly through a Robben Ford 1988 cover of Talk To Your Daughter (a SMOKING cover and CD, BTW). It could be the choice of material in the film (again...) but the Lenoir material in this film didn't exactly hit me the same way material from other "must have" artists did on the first listen. Instead, it came across as "here's some old footage of a authentic blues artist that we were able to find so let's make it seem like he is another Muddy or B.B. or Howlin' Wolf." He isn't.


THE ROAD TO MEMPHIS

Probably the 2nd best film in the series. This segment explains how Memphis became the mid-point between the delta origins of the blues and the electrified Chicago blues that came later, courtesy of B.B. King and the whole Sun Records phemonena that gave Ike Turner, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and others their start.


WARMING BY THE DEVIL'S FIRE

Easily, the worst film of the series. Devoting any more time to explaining why just adds to the 90 minute gap in my life left after wasting it watching this film.


GODFATHERS & SONS

Probably the most watchable, entertaining and enlightening film of the series. This segment focused on how Chicago style blues evolved from the key players who migrated from the South in the 40s and 50s and how unique aspects of the situation in Chicago helped (literally) electrify older delta styles into newer styles more familiar to present day ears. Much of the film involves a special "jam session" brought together by Chuck D (of Public Enemy) and Marshall Chess (of Chess Records) that attempted to demonstrate how some aspects of rap can trace their lineage back to the blues. I despise rap (don't go for the rap approach to lyrics and certainly despise the content of gangsta rap) but knew enough about Chuck D to keep an open mind to watch the story unfold. Chuck D has a little more on the ball than most current artists (rap or otherwise) because he does have a bit of the musicologist in him and makes an effort to understand where his influences came from and WHY those influences were created in the first place. That attitude of appreciation and respect comes out clearly in the film which is why I consider it the most enjoyable of the series.

RED, WHITE AND BLUES

Probably the most disappointing film in the series. This segment intended to explain how delta and Chicago blues influences hit Britain and were reflected back to American audiences in the British invasion. Anyone who's a fan of basic rock or blues guitar and 70s music knows most of this story and will find the explanation here strangely incomplete. Those not familiar with the story will learn nothing from this film and instead are exposed to:

* this guy, Jeff Beck - who is he? THE FILM NEVER INTRODUCES HIM!
* recollections from various British artists about their first
guitar (wow, tell me more about that first 30 pound Harmony...)
* interview clips with John Mayall without any explanation as to
how big his shadow is on 70s rock really is -- you'll never learn
from this film that he helped give a blues foundation to not only
Clapton but to Mick Taylor (Stones), John McVie (Fleetwood Mac),
Coco Montoya -- even if blues fans already know this, how can you
OMIT this from a documentary about the roots and influence of
blues on music?
* a VERY COOL clip of Booker T and the MGs playing Green Onions
that includes all of a very cool initial Hammond B3 break from
Booker, THEN TRUNCATES THE FIRST GUITAR BREAK FROM STEVE CROPPER,
all the while never mentioning how that Stax/Volt rythm section
appeared on more pop tunes of the 60s than most people may remember
today

PIANO BLUES

Haven't seen it yet. Not sure if I have the heart to watch it after the disappointment of the other six films.


OVERALL

If you missed the first airing of this series and think you want to see it, please:

1) DO NOT SPEND $139.99 on the DVD set unless you need a new set of coasters for
your living room -- spending the $139.99 will only encourage more of this
highly polished, professionally produced, but utterly soul-less TRIPE
2) make sure you tape or Tivo it the next time it airs so you can quickly scan
through it before comitting 10.5 hours of your life to watching it in real time

What is so disappointing about this series is that it could have been so much more. A better historical document for the blues afficianado to show more archival footage that DOES exist of key blues artists that influenced us. A better educational document for newbies to explain how blues influences 70-80 years old had such a profound impact on music we hear every day. A better explanation of why the basic elements of blues allow a guitar player, bass player and drummer to play three instruments and produce music with more meaning and feeling than all the digital tracks, synthesizers, pitch correctors, and background dancers on the planet can provide on the typical pop artist track of today.


WatchingTheHerd
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