The Blues - A Musical Journey: Warming By The Devils Fire Review
Whether it be the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil and of the hellhound that crept behind him 'til the day he died or it's just the crackle of whips and gunshots in the cotton fields where black slaves picked cotton all day having been dragged out of church but praying that the devil take the white man.
Warming By The Devil's Fire opens with archive footage of slaves working in the cotton field with sorrowful gospel music playing behind it but, as a white landowner raises a gun against them, the bodies of slaves swing from ropes thrown over railway bridges and blues replaces the sound of gospel. Into these deep southern states comes a young boy, Junior (Nathaniel Lee), who's kidnapped by his uncle Buddy (Tommy Hicks) before he's about to be saved. As Buddy plays blues records through the night and the little boy explores empty churches during daylight, so the film looks at how the churches and clubs pulled at the souls of their congregations to either save or be damned.
As with the other six films in his series, Warming By The Devil's Fire mixes archive footage, still images and recordings of blues artists into a scattered theme but where it differs from, say, The Road To Memphis, which was a straightforward documentary in comparison, is in its telling of a story between the songs and scratchy black-and-white film. As Buddy Lee tells his nephew about the year in which the Mississippi flooded and, with water filling the skyline with water, the lives that were lost so Warming By The Devil's Fire presents footage of folks rowing a makeshift boat over a railway bridge and of kids sitting on the roof of their house just to stay clear of the water.
The use of a story around the main theme of the film was a brave one given that it stands out from the other films in the series but it rarely does it come together as intended. Exploring the tension between being saved in church and being damned in the clubs that played blues and jazz, Warming By The Devil's Fire could have been the best of the seven films in the set, promising a shadowy story about blues men meeting the Devil by the crossroads at midnight but, by dragging a hokey story about redemption and of raising a kid in amongst the footage of Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Blind Lemon Jefferson, this film gets little praise.
Nathaniel Lee is a good kid but the glee with which Burnett pushes his wide-eyed astonishment at hearing the blues into the film makes this no better than Spielberg's more contrived casting. The pity with Warming By The Devil's Fire is that, from the mournful opening minute to the shots of Robert Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw and Tommy Johnson, all of whom are said to have done deals with the Devil, the film suggests wanting to be a sombre look at the darker side of the blues. Yet even as Buddy takes his nephew to a crossroads at midnight, which ought to be the moment when the film comes together, Warming By The Devil's Fire slightly misses its chance to drive the fear into Junior, preferring to have a preacher appear in the moonlight instead of the Devil, neither of which is more fantastical than the other in context.
With an ending that fades the film out, Warming By The Devil's Fire is no replacement for simply listening to the mournful blues of the delta blues players like Robert Johnson or Charley Patton, themselves torn between the blues of their clubs and the gospel of the church and both of them say it so much better than Charles Burnett manages here.
As with other films in this series, Warming By The Devil's Fire has been anamorphically transferred in 1.78:1 and looks fine if, most clearly in the shooting of the story of Buddy Lee and his nephew, belying its origins in television.
Given the choice on the DVD of either PCM Stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1, my personal preference is for the former but whilst the surround mix isn't bad, it lacks the immediacy, the clarity and the more natural sound of the PCM Stereo track. Otherwise and in both cases, the audio tracks are clean but, like the muted look of the film, the soundtrack is rarely dynamic.
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 Charles Burnett: Not even offering an introduction, Burnett has recorded a commentary for Warming By The Devil's Fire but is rarely an enthusiastic host, taking until the fourth chapter to begin the commentary and leaving long gaps between what he chooses to tell us about the film. Even when speaking, Burnett tells us little that isn't already obvious and, in saying so little, the experience of listening to this commentary is akin to simply watching the film with the sound slightly muted.
Bonus Segment (3m18s, 1.33:1 Anamorphic, PCM Stereo): Although Nervous by Willie Dixon featured in the film, this bonus feature offers a complete version of the song without the cuts to a studio interview that features Dixon and Muddy Waters.
Director Interview (10m09s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, PCM Stereo): In this bonus feature, Charles Burnett talks about his mix of documentary footage and storytelling, including the characters in the film and its autobiographical content as well as his thoughts and memories of hearing the blues first played.
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 three pages, respectively, the DVD offers some further details on Charles Burnett.
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
Of the two episodes in this set of films seen to date, my hopes were highest for Warming By The Devil's Fire but I found it the most disappointing. The blues has always had, thanks to the legends associated with Tommy and Robert Johnson, something of the devil about it, even being hollered down from the pulpit and this film ought to have taken that story and shown how blues talked to Junior's body, whilst gospel spoke to his soul. Instead, the clumsy manner in which great music and archive footage has been dropped into a story that wouldn't be out of place on the Discovery Kids channel has meant that Warming By The Devil's Fire is far from the standard that one would have expected from BBC4 or even from the other chapters in this seven-film set.