Friday, January 02, 2004

Soul of a Man (DVD, 2003)

This was one of the films in the Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues series. I caught a few of them on pubic television, and now that the library has bought the set, I’m going to watch them all in depth. Soul of a Man was directed by Wim Wenders and narrated by Laurence Fishburne.

This is a bit of an odd duck as far as music documentaries go, mixing reenactments, archival footage and live performance to trace the lives and careers of Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and J.B. Lenoir. The film starts out with a shot of the Voyager spacecraft lifting off and traveling out to visit the planets. Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” was featured on the record Voyager carries representing the music of mankind. So, from outer space Laurence Fishburne in the guise of Blind Willie Johnson narrates the film.

Chris Thomas King plays Blind Willie Johnson in the reenactments as the film portrays the blind blues preacher playing for spare change and singing gospel blues. There is little information on his life and music and he died quite young, so the film quickly moves on to the story of Skip James winning a talent contest and being awarded a recording contract and traveling to the Paramount studios in Wisconsin. Later in the film there is some actual footage of James’ return to the stage after a 30 year absence after he was “rediscovered” by white blues fans in the 60’s and brought back to the Newport folk and blues festival for a triumphant end to his career and life where he and his music finally got the attention they deserved.

The film shifts rather strangely to a load of rediscovered film footage of the great electric bluesman J.B. Lenoir. Lenoir had a very distinctive high voice and wrote some wonderful songs in his brief career. This footage was shot by a Swedish film crew toward the end of Lenoir’s life and is really a sight to see since lot of bluesmen were not filmed at the height of their powers. Some of the color footage is of him dressed up in fantastic suits and playing, while there are also some intimate black and white sections of Lenoir playing solo and duo acoustic blues. I wish that this had been made into a separate film, J.B. Lenoir was an important enough musician to warrant a film biography and this archival footage along with more interviews would have made for an excellent biography, but we should be happy that this was released in any format regardless.

Various rock and roots musicians are called upon throughout the film to interpret the music of these three men. Some are more successful than others, particularly Bonnie Raitt, who has quite and affinity for the blues and sympathy for those who came before her.

Rating: 7.5

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