This movie was filmed in 1990 and released as a "theater" movie in 1991. As the title suggests, the film is essentially a documentary featuring blues musicians from the mystical "crossroads" region. While the movie and the accompanying soundtrack received a good deal of critical acclaim -- particularly from the blues community -- the circulation of both was apparently very limited. I received a copy of the CD when it was released by virtue of being a blues DJ and kept an eye out for the movie. I never noticed that it played anywhere in this area. The soundtrack (which deviates a bit from the movie) received enough circulation to wind up on many "best blues records" lists, but likewise was taken out of distribution in short order. The soundtrack has enjoyed a life as a premium priced collectable. The movie was only available as a very expensive import until its release to the U.S. video market a couple of months ago.
The story line, as such, is simply blues author/historian Robert Palmer (who is the author of a book called "Deep Blues" which may be the inspiration for the movie but is not a script for it) and Executive Producer David Stewart (lead guitarist with the Eurythmics whose presence is probably best explained by the fact he financed the project -- thanks Dave!) in the presence of Director Robert Mugge and crew seeking out musicians still performing "roots blues." The musicians are filmed performing and are interviewed, while the crew offers commentary about the music and related blues culture that is often insightful and informative. Palmer serves as the tour guide while Stewart revels as a tourist.
The movie opens with a pan into Memphis, which finds Palmer and Stewart on Beale Street. Of course, there is a discussion about the history of the locale and its significance to the blues world. The duo next find themselves in a drug store which still has a "voodoo section" and in the past has had a significant business selling blues records. While in Memphis, Booker T. Laury is visited in his living room where he does a performance of "Memphis Blues".
The scene then shifts to north Mississippi, where in the Holly Springs area R. L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphil and Junior Kimbrough are visited. R.L. does a couple tunes from the porch of his "rustic" house. He solos on "Jumper On The Vine" and does a bit of "Long Haired Doney" with Stewart assisting on guitar. Next we find ourselves at Jr. Kimbrough's Juke Joint. Jessie Mae Hemphill -- decked out fine in a Stetson Hat, leopard skin-print blouse and tights -- does a short stint playing a drum with a traditional fife and drum band and then switches to guitar for "You Can Talk About Me." Following this scene, we find Junior himself playing in his own joint. He does what perhaps became his trademark song, "All Night Long." The film shows the juke joint crowd is actively engaged during this performance. You can almost feel yourself sweating in the crowd.
Greenville Mississippi is the next stop. We hear a bit about this historic blues town, and then find ourselves in Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes "Playboy Club." This isn't a T&A showcase like its namesake, but a serious blues club. In an interesting segment, we find the Mayor of Greenville (an older white guy that one would not presume to be a blues fan) talking about how efforts are underway to make the town's historic Nelson Street area a tourist attraction for blues fans and how Booba is doing a great community service by running his blues club. This spiel results in a hearty round of applause being given Booba. If only those stiffs that ran the town where I operated a blues club for several years were so enlightened, I found myself thinking! We see Booba and his band (the "Playboys," of course) do "Heartbroken Man" and "Ain't Gonna Worry." Booba is dressed a bit flamboyantly in this scene - in a bright red suit.
After moving on to Clarksdale we find ourselves in Wade Walton's barber shop. Wade is a blues singer himself, and over the years has barbered a host of bluesmen -- including the likes of Sonnyboy Williamson, Ike Turner and Howlin' Wolf. Most of the Clarksdale segment is devoted to Big Jack Johnson. Jack talks about balancing his life as the "Oilman" -- driving an oil delivery tanker -- and his career as a bluesman. We see Jack in front of his mirror getting ready for a gig, and see him do "Catfish Blues" and a poignant rendition of "When Is Moma Coming Home" at the "Pastimes Lounge" which is decked out for Halloween -- since the performance is on Halloween, 1990.
Down the road a bit further, we hear the historic underpinnings of the "crossroads" legend/spiritual told near its roots in Bentonia, Mississippi and then see a musical performance of it by Jack Owens and Bud Spires, at Jack's home where they perform "The Devil." Jack was eighty-seven years old at the time of this performance, and was still going strong (relatively).
By contrast, the following scene is of Lonnie Pitchford -- a youngster by comparison (35 years old, or so). Lonnie is first seen playing what is essentially a wire nailed to a tree -- called a "diddley bow." He then uses a guitar in accompaniment as he does "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" and "Come On In My Kitchen" as the hosts are pontificating over the healthy state of blues as the movie comes to an end.
The movie is an excellent survey of the state of blues at its birthplace. I think it is essential viewing for serious blues fans and a good vehicle to introduce newcomers to the music. While the performances and artist interviews are the focus of the movie, the commentary is valuable - avoiding a patronizing approach. I found it particularly interesting to see the performers in their native environment - their homes and local clubs. I would liked to have seen a bit more of this local flavor worked into the movie.
While the musicians who are seen in the movie certainly were not entirely unknown at the time of filming, to some extent the movie was a "break out" event for them. Somewhat oddly, perhaps, much of this sound has crossed--over to contemporary, with the likes of R.L. Burnside playing at First Avenue and the 400 Bar these days and Fat Possum records now being distributed by a "punk" label.
Going a bit beyond the obvious theme of chronicling the birthplace of the blues, this movie is an important historical piece in another respect. While the movie was filmed only ten years ago, Roosevelt Barnes, Junior Kimbrough, Booker T. Laury, Jack Owens, Lonnie Pitchford and Frank Frost (who appears on outtake footage) have all since passed on. The host Robert Palmer has, as well. Even Junior Kimbrough's juke joint has passed on - burning down just a few weeks ago.
The movie is available on DVD and VHS. The DVD contains much valuable additional material such as outtake performances, discographies, bonus audio tracks and web links. It can be acquired through major internet media merchants or from www.winstarvideo.com.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Mark Halverson, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.