The Blues - A Musical Journey: Soul of a Man Review
Blind Willie Johnson's Dark was the night, cold was the ground is one of those tunes any Wenders fan should be familiar with given that it is played ad infinitum by Ry Cooder on the Paris, Texas soundtrack. It was also a tune that NASA thought was representative enough of American Music for it to be sent out into space on the Voyager probe in the unlikely event Aliens intercepted it. As the film opens, Blind Willie (voiced by Lawrence Fishburne), up in the great beyond, takes it upon himself to be our narrator and talk us through his life and that of two other bluesmen, Skip James and JB Lenoir.
In his contribution to The Blues series, Wenders takes us to meet three of the bluesmen that have most influenced him. Blind Willie Johnson (Chris Thomas King) is probably the most famous of the three since he's been pillaged (and misappropriated) by the likes of Led Zepplin. Blinded by his step-mother when he was a child, Blind Willie wasn't a bluesman in the strictest sense of the term since he only sung gospel songs with his mind's eye firmly fixed on his Redeemer. Despite only recording about two hours worth of material, Blind Willie changed American music - his vocal style and innovative use of the slide can be found in the music of Beck, Tom Waits or Lucinda Williams. Skip James (Keith B. Brown) however, started out as a true Bluesman with songs of despair and lust, penning such classics as Hard Times Killing Floor Blues and Cypress Grove Blues in his short recording career. As suddenly as he emerged, he then disappeared, abandoning his career as a blues artist to become a Baptist minister. In his mind, the Devil's music couldn't continue to mix with his newly-found faith...
Arriving on the scene thirty years later, JB Lenoir had no qualms about fusing together the blues, politics and gospel themes with some amazing guitar playing. Wenders was turned on to his music by John Mayall's eulogy The Death of J.B. Lenoir and set out to find some footage of the man. The few reels unearthed were filmed by two students in their living room with Lenoir chatting, singing, playing and pulling off some tremendous performances.
Wenders' connections in the music industry worked wonders for this film as he managed to get the likes of Beck, Nick Cave, Lucinda Williams, Cassandra Wilson, Bonnie Raitt and many others to provide some fine covers of the three bluesmen's songs. However, given the limitations of timing, Wenders had to edit down a lot of these performances which is quite a shame but is in part made up in the extras. The mix of documentary footage with re-enactments and covers makes the film's narrative a little disjointed at times but Lawrence Fishburne's narration helps keep things on course. Despite being a deeply personal film, Wenders has managed to make is both appealing to those who have little knowledge of the artist's as well as the most fanatic Blues aficionado thanks to the inclusion of very rare footage of Lenoir. Recommended viewing for any music fan.
The film is given an anamorphic transfer with most of the film filmed in 1.77:1. Some scenes however retain their original 4:3 format with black bars appearing on the sides of the image (see screenshots). The quality of the image is highly dependent on the source that was used - since lots of archival footage was used, the quality is quite variable but most definitely acceptable. The band performances were filmed on DV and are crisp but suffer from a certain amount of digitalisation but that's one of the drawbacks of filming on DV. Globally, the image is quality is as good as one could expect within reason and exhibits no avoidable problems.
We get the choice between linear PCM or 5.1 - the PCM track comes out firmly ahead in my mind since the 5.1 track seems slightly tinnier and less powerful. The limitations of the original recordings are obvious with the usual scratchiness and canned sound to them but that's part of their charm.
These are simple but effective. A good addition to the menus is the possibility to access any of the songs directly.
Wenders provides an interesting commentary with a good amount of technical and historical background to the film - his delivery however is slow and slightly monotonous, probably due to English not being his mother tongue. We also get a 9 minute long Q&A session with him - though there's a small amount of duplication with the commentary, this extra does give an extra amount of information and is also a fair bit more concise than the commentary.
A few performances that did not make the film are also included here. These are:
- Lou Reed - See That My Grave Is Kept Clean (13 mins)
- Cassandra Wilson - Slow Down (3 mins)
- Alvin Youngblood Hard - Mama Talk To Your Daughter (2 mins)
- Marc Ribot - Electric version of Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground (5 mins)
- Chris Thomas King Revelations (6 mins)
Like the film, all of these performances come with a PCM and a 5.1 mix.
A deleted scene, a silent scene from Skip James life, also makes it into the extras - despite being silent, it's quite easy to make out what's going on and gives a little more information on Skip James' background.
Finally, we get the compulsory trailer (6 mins) which advertises all seven films in the series, as well as a biography and filmography of Wim Wenders
The French public, being such a fan of documentaries and Blues, were lucky enough to see the entire blues series get a theatrical run. In the UK, it seems like the series has been relegated to BBC4 or straight to DVD - a bit of a shame since going by the current film, it looks like a fascinating series of films that every music fan should get to see. The DVD release is very good indeed with an ample amount of extras and the inclusion of a PCM track.