The Blues - A Musical Journey: Road To Memphis Review
There are only a few places in the world that can claim to have been the home of a whole new kind of music but out of the fertile musical ground in Memphis, in the clubs of Beale Street and inside Sam Philips' Sun Studios, the blues of Howlin' Wolf, B. B. King and the chitlin' circuit roared out of the clubs, met the gospel from the Baptist churches and God-fearing kids like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley
The Road To Memphis, Richard Pearce's entry in The Blues - A Musical Journey, follows a small number of blues musicians as they head back home to Memphis before appearing at a homecoming gig in town. As they board the buses, trains and aeroplanes, Ike Turner and B.B. King reflect on what Memphis added to their music and how the old clubs of Beale Street had them playing the blues for a dollar a night just to buy some wine.
Elsewhere, Bobby Rush is still playing the chitlin' circuit and travelling through the night in a coach still hoping to get his big break whilst one-time star of Beale Street, Rosco Gordon, finds that he's all but forgotten when he comes home after twenty years in New York. Unable to find a record of his in the Memphis shops and no mention of his name but for an original sixties poster in the window of an old store, Rosco knows that it don't matter so long as there's one night of the blues alongside Ike Turner and B.B. King.
The main character in The Road To Memphis is not Ike Turner, Sam Philips nor B. B. King, although any one of these people could have headlined the film. No, the star of The Road To Memphis is the city itself, from the cotton fields outside of town to the hot clubs that once lined Beale Street, the story of Memphis is the story of the blues up until rock'n'roll, pop and eventually hip-hop replaced it as the popular voice of black culture. As the blues burst out of Memphis any which way - rock'n'roll was born in the studios that the greatest bluesman, Howlin' Wolf, painted between his sessions - seeing the music leave town meant the city could tear down the clubs in Beale Street, push the black community into the ghettos and the suburbs and, with Martin Luther King killed in the city, let the voice of the blues fade away. Pearce opens his film with Memphis looking washed out, buildings falling down and with the music hidden in the bars and clubs that once spilled out onto the street. Only as B. B. King, Rosco Gordon and Ike Turner get into town does Pearce show Memphis coming to life and as the homecoming gig approaches so the praise in the Baptist church grows louder and the blues come back to the city of Memphis.
There are some wonderfully touching moments in the film, particularly when the coach carrying Bobby Rush rolls into town some early morning and Rush's guitar is passed to a bum poking through a bin with the questions, "You know the blues?" No matter the danger in this looking staged, the white guy who's busy searching for breakfast takes the guitar, plays the blues and, once Rush gets the guitar back in his hands, the two of them play off one another in an old blues number that cries against the wickedness of their women. Elsewhere, the conversation between Ike Turner and Sam Philips, who died quietly a short time after this film was made, is like two old friends grown old apart and coming together having almost forgotten all about one another. With Ike still sounding pin-sharp and kidding about Sam Philips, the eighty-year-old Philips looks unsure about Ike and argues with himself over the place his Sun Studios had in the city. Not knowing whether Ike genuinely likes him, Philips looks sour as he sings That's All Right, which Elvis had recorded in the same studio as Philips sat years later.
Although he's only a minor player in the film and has almost been written out of the history of the blues, The Road To Memphis' greatest achievement lies in finding Rosco Gordon. With nothing to give him his place when crediting the blues but for an old poster, The Road To Memphis sees him down to asking people in the street if they've heard his name before his triumphant return to playing in the clubs and curbside gigs. In as much as the hot clubs of Beale Street died as the city tore them down, so The Road To Memphis ends with the funeral of Rosco Gordon, who died the night before leaving Memphis with his bags packed for another gig elsewhere in the southern states.
If Pearce opened the film mourning the death of the blues in Memphis as the musicians who made it happen in the city moved out of the chitlin' circuit and out of Memphis, so it ends with the coming home of a lost son who never made it out again.
Whilst the menu is in 1.33:1, the main feature has been transferred in 1.78:1 and looks fine, so much so that the picture soon goes unnoticed, particularly as it often includes no more than interviews and static concert footage.
The Road To Memphis has been transferred with both a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Mix and a PCM Stereo mix. When listening to music or a documentary, this reviewer tends to favour a stereo mix rather than a surround sound mix, which tends to sound artificial in comparison, and so the PCM Stereo audio track is the preferred option out of the two available. Snapper Music is to be credited, however, for allowing the viewer to choose between a surround or a stereo mix.
The Blues - A Musical Journey: The Road To Memphis, in keeping with the other releases in this series of documentaries, has a little over thirty minutes of bonus features, which are described as follows:
Unseen Performances: This covers three performances that were recorded but not used in the final film:
- B.B. King - Blues Boys Tune (3m12s)
- B.B. King - Key To the Highway (3m57s)
- Hubert Sumlin and David Johansen - Smokestack Lightning
The B.B. King performances are taken from the Homecoming concert that ended the main feature, whilst Hubert Sumlin and David Johansen, Howlin' Wolf's guitarist and the ex-singer of The New York Dolls, respectively, has been shot at a smaller club in Memphis.
On-Camera Interview (8m52s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, PCM Stereo): Richard Pearce Robert Kenner, the director and producer of The Road To Memphis, are interviewed about the making of the film and their selection of the blues singers they featured.
Director Biography, Filmography: Over six and three still images, respectively, the DVD offers some further details on Richard Pearce.
The Blues Trailer (5m43s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, PCM Stereo): Using footage from The Road To Memphis and other entries in The Blues - A Musical Journey, this bonus feature is a trailer for the complete seven-film series.
Despite a number of great moments, the film slightly misses having the impact that it ought to have done. Memphis has had a history that saw it at the centre of events both in music and, with the assassination of Martin Luther King, race relations in the US and although footage of King has been included, not enough is done to give the film the visceral impact that might otherwise have had.
The use of B. B. King as the bluesman for this film is apt for, despite archive footage of Howlin' Wolf tearing into the microphone at Sun Studios, B. B. King's blues is more relaxed. Had a film been based on the Wolf, it would have had fire but, as it is, The Road To Memphis soothes rather than burns.