The Blues - A Musical Journey: Red, White & Blues Review
Of the seven directors contributing to The Blues – A Musical Journey, Mike Figgis is the only Brit. So it seems fitting that his contribution to this series concentrates on the British blues boom of the 1950s and beyond. The format is simple: interviews with important figures who are still alive, archive footage of those who aren’t, interspersed with newly-shot live performances.
We begin just after World War II. The British blues scene came out of the jazz scene. A “revivalist” movement, led by trumpeter and bandleader Humphrey Lyttleton (born in 1921, and the oldest living interviewee), played jazz in the style of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and others had played in the 1920s. Black American blues singer and guitarist Big Bill Broonzy first played in Britain in 1951 and immediately made an impact with both the established musicians and the younger ones like Eric Clapton who first saw him on television. Broonzy was followed by other singers and guitarists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the late 50s, all of whom were influential.
Skiffle, pioneered by Lonnie Donegan (interviewed here just before he died), was a British movement, influenced by old blues, jazz, gospel and folk mixed in with British pop. Its play-in-a-day simplicity encouraged many young guitarists. The scene was set for the 60s, with bands like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Yardbirds and Cream taking the music into the pop charts. Meanwhile, musicians like John Mayall and Alexis Korner kept the blues alive in clubs, and many up-and-coming musicians played with them. This led to the British Blues Invasion, as epitomised by bands such as Traffic and Fleetwood Mac.
If any British director is qualified to make this film, Figgis is the one. He was a professional musician before he moved into theatre and then film. His documentary has an appealingly relaxed feel. Each interviewee is introduced with a year-and-place-of-birth caption, and no-one tries to hog the limelight. Those likely to be known to the general public and those more likely to be familiar to aficionados are given equal weight: they are all just musicians and singers, and very good ones too. Even the people with slightly kitsch reputations, like Tom Jones and Lulu, demonstrate quite how they became known in the first place. In terms of vocal ability, they are certainly not out of place. Of those still living and interviewed, members of the Rolling Stones are the most notable omissions. Although much of their early output is R&B-based, The Beatles were never really a blues band and soon evolved into something else; however, we do get a clip of John Lennon performing his White Album track “Yer Blues” with the Plastic Ono Band.
The Blues – A Musical Journey is likely to show up as a seven-film series on BBC4 (which contributed financing to the project), with individual films available on DVD and maybe in time a box set. Red, White & Blues is encoded for all regions. The DVD has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 16:9. Much of the archive footage shown is 4:3 and windowboxed. The new material is shot on digital video and looks a lot sharper, as you might expect. The occasional artefact shows up, and there’s some motion blur, but nothing too distracting. Needless to say, the state of the archive material varies considerably but is mostly in good shape. Overall, the picture quality is very acceptable.
There are two soundtrack options: linear PCM 2:0 and Dolby Digital 5.1. There’s not a great deal in it for me, but the PCM track edges it. The Dolby Digital is a little brighter and less full in sound. Although the latter is billed as a “surround” track, there’s virtually no surround presence on the disc. Considering that most of it consists of interviews, old footage with mono soundtracks and live performances shot without an audience, there isn’t much call for it in the first place. Whichever soundtrack you choose, you can only do so via the menu and not with your remote control. It’s also possible, via the menu, to jump to a particular song played in the feature.
Regrettably there are no subtitles anywhere. This might be an excusable omission for song lyrics (for copyright reasons), less so as the majority of this film consists of interviews. There are thirty-nine chapter stops.
The main extra is an audio commentary by Mike Figgis and John Porter. This is as laid-back as the main feature, but there are some nice anecdotes along the way. However, much of it is simply responding to what’s on screen.
As with other discs in the series, there are a number of bonus performances. These are as follows:
Lulu with Jeff Beck, “Cry Me a River” (5:37)
Pete King, “Lush Life” (3:36)
Jeff Beck, “Nadia” (2:31)
Jon Cleary, “Piano Improvisation” (1:32)
Band Rehearsal, “Blues Improvisation” (2:52)
Band Rehearsal, “Who’s Sorry Now?” (2:20)
Mike Figgis, “Piano Jam” (1:07)
All of these are 16:9 anamorphic, with the same sound options as the main feature.
The remaining extras include an interview with Figgis (8:24, divided into seven chapters). Unlike many such interviews, this doesn’t duplicate much of the material of the main feature. Instead, it gives Figgis a chance to give the story of his own “personal journey” as a musician and a blues enthusiast. Next up is an overall trailer for The Blues – A Musical Journey (5:43). This is 16:9 anamorphic but PCM is the only sound option, and the mix displays a considerable use of stereo separation, with voices coming out of either the right or left speaker. The extras are concluded by a Figgis biography and filmography, and a pair of weblinks.
Red, White & Blues is just one part of seven, and of what looks like being a fascinating series. For anyone at all interested in the music, this will be essential viewing. There are also sufficient extras to justify purchasing the DVD, even if you do see the film on TV first.