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Blues Heroes

The Martin Scorsese-generated blues series, a weeklong extravaganza of blues films presented on PBS stations across the country, was one of the most anticipated events of the past few decades. Given the decline of sales across the board for all genres of music, the folks who make, record and release blues music were hoping for a shot in the arm, akin to the Ken Burns series on jazz and, to a lesser degree, the country/bluegrass film "O Brother". While every label with a stake in the music released a good deal of product over the course of this Year of the Blues, none touched the music on disc and DVD that Shout! Factory released.

Blues Story is two hours of words and music by some of the greats in the music. Produced and directed by Jay Levey, it features B.B. King, Koko Taylor, Hubert Sumlin, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Buddy Guy, Willie Foster, R.L. Burnside, Othar Turner, Philadelphia Jerry Ricks, John Jackson, Honeyboy Edwards, Little Milton, Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson, Henry Townsend, Pinetop Perkins, Rufus Thomas, Gatemouth Moore, Robert Lockwood, Snooky Pryor, Ruth Brown, Willie King, and the great Bobby Blue Bland telling it like it was. Broken into 11 separate sections highlighting various aspects and regions of the music, the visual quality of the film is equal to the music it celebrates. There are bone chilling stories about sharecropping, slavery and plantation life and the narratives of how other musicians, like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and Charlie Patton, left their marks on those that followed. Film footage from Bessie Smith and Muddy Waters are treats in the midst of a delectable sea of blues.

The Life & Music of Robert Johnson: Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl? examines the influence of Robert Johnson half a century after his death. Danny Glover serves as narrator and in theatrical snippets, Keb’ Mo’ is cast in a non-speaking role. The 1997 Peter Meyer film is heavy on interviews. Those with blues great Johnny Shines, a longtime road partner, are particularly poignant, though all of the interviewees had a close connection. Robert Jr. Lockwood was Johnson’ step-son and Honeyboy Edwards traveled with Johnson. How they found boyhood friends is a mystery. Those interviewed offer insights into Johnson’s early years. Speculation is offered on what really happened with Johnson, rather than the popular, mythical tale of making a deal with the Devil at a crossroads. One theory is that Johnson was taught to play by a man named -Ike Zimmerman. There is an interview with the son of the man who recorded Johnson, and Honeyboy Edwards offers his take on the death of Robert Johnson by poisoned whiskey at the hands of a jealous husband.

Deep Blues is a Robert Mugge film first released in 1990. Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame wanted to learn more about the music and is shown on camera for about the first third as a fan who is shown the Delta landscape and introduced to some of the key figures of the region. It is narrated by blues scholar Robert Palmer, whose book of the same title is one of the classics of blues literature. Palmer is hardly a stiff narrator. He’s more the sly co-conspirator on the journey. In the course of visiting locales from Memphis, Tennessee to Greenwood, Mississippi, we’re treated to interviews and/or performances by pianist Booker T. Laury, guitarist/vocalist R.L. Burnside’s, Junior Kimbrough, Jessie Mae Hemphill (both in a fife and drum setting and solo on guitar and vocal), Roosevelt ‘Booba’ Barnes, Big Jack Johnson, Bud Spires and Jack Owens, and Lonnie Pitchford. Bonus features include 30 minutes of outtakes and 45 minutes of additional audio tracks. These extras aside, Deep Blues impresses this correspondent as the best of the lot and as one of the most mesmerizing films ever released on the subject. The Shout! Factory DVD library also includes The Legends of New Orleans: The Music of Fats Domino and the soul explosion of Rhythm, Love & Soul, which was also seen nationally on PBS during pledge periods.

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