Volume II, Issue III Autumn 2003

Scorsese's blues: Ooh, that smell

This article originally published in The Orange County Weekly

The Blues

Learn more about:

  • The video
  • The book
  • The CDs
  • The blues is the best music. Martin Scorsese is the best film director. I shan't even consider arguments to the contrary. So you'd figure that Scorsese's seven-part film series, "The Blues," commencing September 28 on PBS, would be the best thing ever to caress your cathode, correct?

    Negatori, Mojo Breath.

    To my eternal disappointment, "The Blues" is an exasperatingly schizophrenic affair. When it succeeds, it does so with breathtaking passion and insight; but where it fails, it does so as an infuriating crime against the very music it purports to champion.

    The most glaring culprit would be the Wim Wenders-directed segment, "The Soul Of A Man," wherein we're subjected to such "bluesmen" as Beck (Beck?!?), Lou Reed, Nick Cave, T-Bone Burnett and Jon Spencer serving up "interpretations" of classic blues songs. This elite Yankee preoccupation with pop music trendies who know from the blues like John Goodman knows from Dr. Atkins serves as a disrespectful misinterpretation of the music's cultural legacy at the altar of low vogue.

    The nadir of this shameful episode occurs with Spencer's turn at bat: Jonny Boy apparently wants us to recognize that he's punk-as-shit by screaming a stream of potty words for no apparent reason at all during his ear-bleeding, atonal white-boy "performance." When he meets up in Hell with honky-hatin' Little Walter at some future juncture, I hope he's prepared to be sliced up like a Thanksgiving turkey lacking dark meat.

    As if the "music" and intent of this entry weren't despicable enough on their own terms, Wenders' pretentious, stupefying film-student direction method, rife with faux re-creations of silent film footage, purposefully choppy camera work and inexplicable industrial imagery, comes off like Ed Wood O.D.-ing on 1980s-era MTV.

    Then we have Marc Levin's "Godfathers And Sons," a toadying bio of Chess Records' scion Marshall Chess; a leering, self-aggrandizing weenie who comes off as the living embodiment of the dark, collective soul of every record exec who ever parted the ass-cheeks of an unsophisticated, southern black musician.

    Marshy's most notable past accomplishment was subjecting Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf to recording misguided psychedelic albums in the late '60s; here, he reunites the so-called "Electric Mud" band in the studio with rappers Chuck D., Common and some insufferable, "know-whut-I'm saying"-spouting turntable cretin to corrupt the blues for a whole new generation. If the Wolf project was a musical and cultural abomination of which the great man notoriously commented, "they made me record dogshit," the Waters album was at least curiously inspired in spurts. However, this gathering of faded studio hacks (who weren't blues players to begin with) coupled with the imposition of noise-spewing hip-hoppers results in the unpalatable, aural equivalent of a toddler finger-painting with a bowl of strained peas. To his credit, Chuck D. seems a likeable and earnest man, genuinely captivated by the history and sociology of African-American music, yet he's so deeply out of his league in his endeavor to graft rap onto the blues that one feels pity for the guy, even as his feeble efforts induce cruel chortles. This segment, at least, never bores; it's akin to witnessing a gory aircrash from which one cannot avert one's morbid gaze.

    Contrast these vile frauds with the Scorsese-directed "Feel Like Going Home," by leagues the highlight of the series. Here, a roots-seeking musical journey by contemporary blues giant Corey Harris is lovingly recorded for posterity, as he explores the meaning of near-extinct folkloric tradition. It's a captivating voyage in which the immensely appealing Harris travels down south to pick the brains of primal patriarchs Otha Turner, Sam Carr and Willie King and trade licks and observations with fellow contemporary blues royalists Keb' Mo' and Taj Mahal.

    However, the most revealing segment features Harris traveling to Mali to jam and interact with a host of West African musicians including the towering Ali Farka Toure, a brilliant multi-instrumentalist regarded as a deity in his homeland. As the duo performs together, one experiences traditions, souls and continents merging on more than a merely musical level; Toure is moved to an emotional monologue regarding African heritage so passionate that Harris – and the viewer – are left with lumps in the throat and tears in the eyes. The program is concluded by a prescient quote from folk music archivist Alan Lomax: "When the whole world is bored with automatic, mass-distributed video music, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture."

    Another notable entry in the series presents a Memphis homecoming concert by favorite sons B.B. King, Bobby Rush, Little Milton, Ike Turner and Rosco Gordon. The Memphis program also features the reunion of an oddly deferential Turner and an obviously-on-his-last-legs Sun Records sultan Sam Phillips, who comes off as a vainglorious blowhard. Turner has been widely cast as Satan incarnate by his embittered ex-wife Tina while Phillips is universally worshipped as a charitable soul and the divine engineer of rock 'n' roll; here, the truth seems to avail itself as a reversal of these popular perceptions.

    Elsewhere, there's a British blues documentary featuring a stunning vocal performance from Van Morrison; a no-nonsense study of piano blues directed by part-time pianist Clint Eastwood and a fictional account of a young black kid receiving an education in the blues from his no-account uncle; this last segment is notable for much ham-fisted over-acting. Throughout the series, rare, archival footage of numerous blues masters makes almost every entry worth at least a cursory peek, even if said footage sometimes comes in brief, frustrating snippets that are little more than a tease.

    At the end of the day, "The Blues" is a far less entertaining and educational entity than its PBS predecessor, "Ken Burns' Jazz," to which it will bear inevitable comparison. Yet if the series succeeds in cluing even a small population of the American public into the fact that this music doesn't begin and end with the career of Stevie Ray Vaughan, it will have served a noble purpose despite its considerable flaws.

    Autumn 2003 Music Section | Autumn 2003 Main Page
    Current Music Section | Current Home Page