The Blues - A Musical Journey: Godfathers And Sons Review
The trouble with a form of music like the blues, which dates back into the early twentieth-century is that with such a long tradition behind it, some musicians struggle to move it on. Despite the decades in which Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker all stood on the shoulders of those before them, the last couple of decades of the last century held steady as Jeff Healey, Gary Moore and Eric Clapton did little more than play out the same old blues riffs in arenas beyond the dreams of B. B. King, Hubert Sumlin and the other bluesmen still playing a never ending tour.
Seeing the blues as something played by rich, white guys wearing Armani, black kids across the US and Europe took two decks and a microphone and hip-hop was born out of sound systems and street parties. As political as the blues was in its day, promoting black power and a way out of the projects instead of the cotton field and the plantation, hip-hop has as clear a connection to the roots of black culture as the blues once did. Marc Levin's Godfathers And Sons, therefore, heads to Chicago, the home of Chess Studios, where the greatest blues man of them all, Howlin' Wolf, recorded his best work, as did Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
Opening with the sound of Gambler, Godfathers And Sons walks off the street and into a Chicago blues club where Magic Slim's playing to an audience that includes Marshall Chess, the heir to the Chess Records estate. Having travelled from his native New York to Chicago to meet Marshall Chess, Public Enemy's Chuck D represents the hip-hop side of this story to Chess' blues and as the pair drive through Chicago, Chess jumps through the history of blues in the city that saw Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters tear through their greatest songs inside the Chess Records building before the two record an album with veteran blues musicians and contemporary hip-hop artists and rappers. From having nothing but an idea, Chuck D and Marshall Chess explore Chicago, the white London blues of the sixties, Hendrix and hip-hop before heading to a recording studio in the closing quarter-hour of the film.
If there is a story here it's that of Marshall Chess whose Bar Mitzvah caused controversy when both white and black guests were invited. With Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley writing verse for him during his teenage years so to send to prospective girlfriends, Chess is seen flitting just out of focus in photographs taken in Chicago, Memphis and even to the mansion in the south of France where The Rolling Stones recorded the blues/folk of Exile On Main St. As the spirit of the blues was lost as the sixties handed over to the seventies and Chicago and Delta bluesmen returned to the small clubs that first gave them a home, so Marshall Chess returned home from London, entered rehab, got married and had kids. As blues became respectable, thanks to it wearing designer suits at the Royal Albert Hall in London, so hip-hop came up from the streets to replace it with bands such as NWA and Public Enemy cast as the successors to blues through the late-1900's.
With footage of Bo Diddley, Paul Butterfield and Magic Slim and ending with Chuck D recording a version of Mannish Boy backed up by Muddy Waters' ElectriK Mud Katz, Godfathers And Sons has a great selection of songs but the film closes in much the same manner as it opened, without every really making its point. Come the end credits, we're back in the same club, back with Magic Slim and back around the pool table with Chuck D and it's difficult to that the film has been successful in making any point between their first and their last visit there.
Godfathers And Sons has been anamorphically transferred in 1.78:1 but in capably handling a more frenetic style well suited to the bustle of Chicago, as opposed to the wide empty spaces of the cotton fields around the Mississippi, this looks better than the other features in this series.
Once again, having been given the choice of either PCM Stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1, my personal preference remains the former but both are free of noise and the music sounds terrific. The surround mix, as with other releases in this series, can still be said to lack the immediacy, the clarity and the more natural sound of the PCM Stereo track.
The bonus features included on this entry in the The Blues - A Musical Journey are similar to those presented on the other six discs, including:
Commentary By Marc Levin: Unlike Charles Burnett on Warming By The Devil's Fire, who may as well not have recorded a commentary, Marc Levin talks constantly about the film from the moment it begins to the point when the end credits stop rolling. Levin obviously loves the material and people he's had access to and rarely allows a scene to pass without adding to it through his commentary. Whether on the music, the Chess family or the privileged access he was given to some of the footage - the Howlin' Wolf performance is being presented for the first time in public thanks to the release of this film - Levin is a knowledgeable and affable host who's not afraid to comment on the moments when the film is less than polished.
Bonus Performances (1.78:1 Anamorphic, PCM Stereo): Whilst the main feature offered glimpses of these performances, this extra allows the viewer to water the following in full:
- Mannish Boy - The ElectriK Mud Katz, Chuck D, Common & Kyle (5m19s)
- You're Using Me - Lonnie Brooks (3m52s)
- Ernestine - Koko Taylor (3m22s)
- So Many Roads, So Many Trains - Otis Rush (6m26s)
- Evil (Is Going On) - Howlin' Wolf (4m30s)
As good as many of these are, it's the Howlin' Wolf track that stands out, much as Marc Levin agrees on his commentary - no matter the time, day or night, party or sitting alone, Howlin' Wolf works where others don't.
Director Interview (8m40s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, PCM Stereo): In this bonus feature, Marc Levin talks about the origins of his film, the sound of the Chicago blues and the standout moments within the film.
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.
Director Biography, Filmography: Running to seven and two pages, respectively, the DVD offers some further details on the director of Godfathers And Sons, Marc Levin.
Weblink: This is no more than one still image containing two web addresses, one for Year Of The Blues and another for Snapper Music's Page On The Blues
It's easy to see what Levin was trying to achieve and so long as he avoids playing hip-hop, he's successful but whilst blues and hip-hop have some connection within being born out of black culture, one owes very little to the other.
Look through a list of samples and influences used in hip-hop and whilst soul, R&B and funk all found their way into hip-hop, particularly in Public Enemy's raiding of James Brown and Sly Stone's back catalogue, blues rarely did. DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill has seen fit to run the occasional blues lick into his records and but the most successful attempt to fuse the two has come with three white guys, G Love & Special Sauce.
Therein lies the problem with Godfathers And Sons as I can appreciate the point he's making and, in many respects, it does stand up but just not with the music and, in a series of films about the blues, that's an oversight that's hard to let pass.