The Blues - A Musical Journey: Piano Blues Review

In assembling his epic documentary series on the Blues, Martin Scorsese has relied on directors who know their subject and I can’t think of any major filmmaker better qualified to give us a history of Piano Blues than Clint Eastwood. Ever since his first film as director - Play Misty For Me - Eastwood has used music scores which have been heavily reliant on jazz/blues and often piano based. Sometimes this is made a vital part of the film – the songs by Johnny Hartman in The Bridges of Madison County for example – and sometimes, as in the recent Lennie Niehaus score for Blood Work, it’s simply a central part of the background and atmosphere. But Eastwood’s love of the music goes back to his childhood and he has been playing the piano since he was a young boy, making money in a nightclub while he was at college. Indeed, such is his reputation among jazz/blues musicians that he was granted an “After Hours” concert at Carnegie Hall during the early nineties.

In this ninety minute journey through the history of 20th Century piano blues, Eastwood states that “I’ve always felt that Jazz/Blues were a true American art form, perhaps the only original American art form that we have” which is a nice sentiment and one which has some validity – although he has also said exactly the same thing about the Western in the past and I agreed with him then too. But his enthusiasm for the genre is infectious as he interviews a group of blues piano players, starting with the great Ray Charles, and asks about how they got started with their careers and who their biggest influences were. Although this form of questioning gets a little tedious after a while – Eastwood isn’t likely to pose a serious threat to Errol Morris – it gets the desired results. The level of entertainment inevitably depends on the interviewees. Ray Charles is always good value, although like so many musicians in their twilight years he seems to be becoming a parody of himself. He discusses his childhood fondness for ‘boogie woogie’ piano, one of the key ingredients of early rock and roll, as practised by musicians like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammond and Dorothy Donnegan. Archive footage of these suggests the feeling of excitement that must have been created on first exposure because it still doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard. Compared to classical piano – and echt-classical performers of the late 19th Century – it’s as radical as punk and probably as influential. Charles then moves on to discuss the simple CGM blues which is accompanied by an all-too brief clip of the great Duke Ellington. Given Ellington’s importance in music it’s a shame that he doesn’t get more screen time but that might perhaps have turned this into a film about jazz – and it’s already teetering on the brink as it is. Finally, he mentions the Gospel roots of the genre and the Country and Western influence. Ray Charles has, of course, been a significant artist in all of these areas with songs like “You Don’t Know Me” crossing the border between C&W and Blues with ease. But the most enjoyable part of this section – along with Charles using the word ‘motherfucker’, much to Clint’s amusement – is the superb clip of him singing “That’s Alright” on American TV in the sixties. His singing and playing has a deep spiritual joy which leaps off the screen, as it does with all great musicians.

Interspersed with the interviews are lots of archive clips, many of them in somewhat ropey condition. But all of them are wonderful little snippets of musical history. The clip of Big Joe Turner in full flow is like viewing a huge – and I mean huge – and unstoppable force of nature. Eastwood moves on, after Ray Charles, to interview Dave Brubeck – another jazz influence here – who discusses the significance of Oscar Peterson and the immortal Art Tatum. Although it sounds somewhat redundant to say it, much emphasis is placed here on the ability of these artists to use the whole of the keyboard, “as if two people were playing at the same time”. Eastwood really gets excited at the mention of Muddy Walters and T-Bone Walker and it’s very touching to see that someone who is, basically, a living legend still has people of whom he feels in awe.

The mix-up of blues and jazz is a slight problem for the film and blues fans may well feel that the discussion of Thelonious Monk, for example, would be better suited to a series on jazz. But I’ve always felt that the two genres fed off each other – it would be a brave man who tried to fence Charlie Parker into one particular category - and the experience of many of the black musicians featured in this episode is historically similar regardless of the distinct musical genre. The take-up (I won’t use the word appropriation) of blues (and to a lesser extent jazz) by a large number of white Americans in the 1950s is only touched on in passing and the racial problems which Nat King Cole faced in his television career are not referred to, even though he is mentioned as an underrated blues piano player. More social background would certainly have been welcome. But it’s not as if there isn’t enough here to keep you watching. How could it be less than entertaining with the vast range of clips and the interviews – which also feature the likes of Dr John, Marcia Ball, Pinetop Perkins – who must be even older than Clint - and Jay McShann.

Does the lack of social context make for some superficiality ? Inevitably, although I’d have to see the other episodes in this series to see if they provide the background in more detail. Worse than this, the introductions to some of the artists featured don’t go much deeper than “he was very influential to me”. It doesn’t really matter though, in one sense, because you don’t really want to see people talking about Fats Domino when you can sit and watch archive footage of the great man in action and the clips are guaranteed to make anyone who loves music wanting a lot more. It’s the love of music which explodes out of everyone involved in this documentary that makes it so much fun to watch and you’ll be tapping your feet long after you’ve muttered grumpily about it all skating over the surface.

The Disc

This is one of seven discs released under the umbrella title of “Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues” and it seems to be one of the least in terms of special features. Clint Eastwood’s evident reluctance to embrace DVD – evident on the discs of his own films – perhaps had something to do with this as he obviously didn’t want to record a commentary unlike some of the other directors in the series.

The film is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 with the archive TV footage presented in a windowbox format. Much of this old footage is in somewhat poor condition, as you’d expect, but it looks about as good as it could do without serious restoration work. The garish colours of the 1960s TV extracts haven’t aged very well and the pinks are positively obscene. The new interviews look very good indeed however, with deep blacks and rich colours.

The only soundtrack offered is PCM Stereo and I found it exceptionally good. No noise is present – except on some of the archive TV scenes – and the clarity is superb. My personal preference for music DVDs is usually PCM and I wasn’t disappointed in this track.

The Special Features section contains a fairly detailed biography and filmography for Clint Eastwood along with a couple of web links. When you look at the contents of some of the other discs, this one looks positively deprived. I would have hoped at least for some more performances but none have been included.

There is also a general trailer for the series as a whole which is accessible from the main menu. 26 chapter stops are included and there are no subtitles.

Piano Blues is a hugely enjoyable tribute to some great musicians and despite my reservations about how superficial it sometimes is, it’s still well worth watching if you’re a music lover. The disc looks and sounds fine but is lacking in the bonus materials department.

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