The musicians gathered include rock stars - Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, John Fogerty (of Creedence Clearwater Revival), Bonnie Raitt, David Johansen - contemporary artistes - Natalie Cole, India.Arie, Macy Gray, Chuck D., Shemekia Copeland - long-time performers - David "Honeyboy" Edwards (who is 88 at the time of the concert!), Larry Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Neville Brothers - and legends - Ruth Brown, Odetta, Buddy Guy, Solomon Burke and B.B. King. An impressive ensemble to say the least; they are just some of the estimated 50 musicians that participated in "Salute To The Blues". It was going to be a long night for the audience, but nonetheless an enjoyable and unforgettable one.
Being that it is about a musical concert, the songs (as well as the performances of them) are the prime essentials. A director must not only record the event from an outside witness standpoint but also capture it in a way that is engaging as if the viewer is right there among the audience. Antoine Fuqua's experience in music videos and music-themed features enables him to do both very well. The cinematography is dynamic, enabling a viewer to 'see' the concert from every angle. Backing up the visuals are the sharp surround quality of the audio that reinforces a concert experience.
Each musical act is preceded either by a brief historical narration (audio/video footages, stills, et al.) or an equally brief recollection (interviews). Then the act presents itself with subtitles indicating title of song, name of original artiste, and year it was first performed. International artiste Angélique Kidjo kicks off with a stirring rendition of "Zelie", an African song that hints at the musical roots of the blues. Within the song, Kidjo made a strong Braveheart-like statement that sets the tone for the rest of the film: one thing of the African-American people that their oppressors can never take away is their voices. Judging by the power of her singing, who can disagree!
All the performances are electrifying, but there are some that stand out. Natalie Cole belts W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues", the first blues song to be published; Handy's original version is heard in a prior audio footage. Cole then joins Mavis Staple, Ruth Borwn in "Men are Like Streetcars", which has a walk-in cameo by Bill Cosby. No tribute to the legacy of blues is complete without a piece by Robert Johnson, the man who pioneered the art form. Enter Keb' Mo' with "Love in Vain".
Macy Gray informs us - in her own special way - that "Hound Dog" originated from Big Mama Thornton before Elvis Presley made it one of his early hits. Chuck D. does an anti-war twist with John Lee Hooker's classic "Boom, Boom". I then discover for the first time that "I Pity the Fool" (Deadrie Malone) was blues before Mr. T made it his trademark catchphrase. It is wonderfully sung by the duo of Shemekia Copeland and Robert Cray.
Hubert Sumlin's performance of his own classic "Killing Floor" would have been overlooked if not for the fact that he is a cancer survivor just months prior. Fuqua lets you know that beforehand so you have to give Sumlin your complete attention when he goes onstage to play. Buddy Guy's guitar work is stunning. While he is doing Jimi Hendrix's "Red House", the scene cross-cuts between the stage to a footage of Jimi Hendrix attending one of his concert. Guy remembers his meeting with Hendrix, especially the part where Hendrix allegedly spoke of being a fan of his and wanting to play like him.
The Caucasian-American rockers are no slouches. John Fogerty's "Midnight Special" (first recorded by Leadbelly) sounds more hard rock than blues but nonetheless an enjoyable performance. Steven Tyler's screaming vocals - and harmonica - galvanizes Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee". Multiple Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt shows her deep-rooted blues tradition in Elmore James' "Coming Home".
The best are saved for last, namely Solomon Burke and B.B. King. Age has not mellowed either one, body or spirit. They play as if they are in the prime of their lives. Burke rocks the house with "Turn On Your Love Light" and "Down in the Valley". Then B.B. King enters to a rousing ovation and plays his "Sweet Sixteen". Glorious, tenacious, dazzling beyond compare, but only because there are no better words in the dictionary to describe it. (Does this guy ever not play well??) Fuqua obviously reveres him with lots of close-ups. In an interview, King relates the story of how his early rendition of "Sweet Sixteen" turned a hostile crowd onto blues music.
It is no surprise that long-timers and legends embody the blues better than their contemporary and rock star counterparts. When the former group like B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, Ruth Brown and David "Honeyboy" Edwards perform, you can tell they have a sense of conviction in the messages of their songs. They believe and mean every word they sing. That kind of identification is not reflected as well on the contemporary artistes like Natalie Cole, Macy Gray and India.Arie, being of a different generation and life experiences. What they can do is to give the songs the best rendition, and they have.
One complaint about Lightning In A Bottle: for a documentary, it is not enlightening enough. It is nothing more than a summary of concert highlights (sans intermission and artistes' stage exits) featuring no more than 15 of the estimated 50 musicians. The historical segments focused mostly on the blues' early beginnings nearly 100 years ago, how it was created down in the Delta, the social influences that forges its identity, and finally its spread to the urban cities with the migration of African-Americans to urban cities across America. Despite allusions made in the interview segments of the continuing struggles many African-American musicians experienced after their music became commercial hits courtesy of Caucasian-American pop/rock stars, it was not touched upon in the historical segments. Unless you are well-versed in music history, it will be difficult for one to understand who Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf are, and how each of them had shaped the blues form to what it is today.
Still, the music is enough reason to check out Lightning In A Bottle. Even if you don't know anything about the blues genre, you'll enjoy some of the best music performed by the great musicians of today, and come out of it knowing a bit about the genre's history. I hope that the DVD release to include additional material so that the Lightning will be an even fuller, richer concert experience.
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