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Figgis & Eastwood do the Blues

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The last two films in the Blues series are Red, White & Blues by Mike Figgis and Piano Blues by Clint Eastwood. Both directors are musicians and it shows in the films.

You can occasionally see the frizzy hair of Figgis (and the rest of him) in shots in his documentary on the impact of the Blues on British musicians and how they helped popularize the music here. He talks to Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Tom Jones, Van Morrison, Stevie Winwood, B.B. King, Mick Fleetwood, and others.

Figgis also shows footage from a documentary on Ramblin’ Jack Elliot where he criticizes the Skiffle scene in Britain (and they fire right back).

Eastwood sits at the piano with Ray Charles, Dr. John, Dave Brubeck, Marcia Ball, Pinetop Perkins, and Jay McShann asking them about how they started playing and their influences. The structure is simple and a bit repetitive, but it is Clint Eastwood (and his new film Mystic River opens next week).

One refreshing aspect of the entire series is displayed when Ray Charles says that Oscar Peterson could play like a motherfucker. Eastwood asks, “Can we say motherfucker on the air?” as he and Charles laugh. “Of course we can,” he realizes. And on PBS he can. Something that would be bleeped on ABC, MTV, A&E, Bravo, Trio, or VH1. Basically every other channel but HBO or Showtime. the language musicians uses flows without interruption.

The entire series was uneven (and different people will think different films were strong or weak), but it was a better approach to the music than Ken Burn’s Jazz which failed to cover the full range of the music or improvise to fit the form. The Blues didn’t pretend to be a complete historical overview or comprehensive (the 13 part radio show which is online does do that).

It was seven filmmaker’s views on aspects of the music. And there were films made before about the blues and there will other films made about it in the future. But it did bring a focus and a new audience to the music.

The problem is more people might have seen it if it hadn’t aired over seven straight days at the same time as the networks were launching their fall schedule. It would have been better over seven weeks during the summer. Just because people watched Ken Burns Civil War day after day doens’t mean they will do the same with every documentary series PBS tried to make an event.

The Blues has been supported by a larger advertising campaign (sponsored by Volkeswagon) than most PBS series and has the draw of a number of well known directors, but that could have been spread over six or seven weeks.

At least now, people can buy the DVD set (or check it out at their library) with a wealth of additional material if they miss a film. And in addition to bringing people to the music, it may convince people to check out some of the films by directors involved in the series who aren’t as well known like Charles Burnett (unfortunately, his best films like To Sleep With Anger and Killer of Sheep aren’t out on DVD) and Marc Levin who directed Slam.

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About Steve Rhodes

  • JR

    “Can we say motherfucker on the air?”

    On WETA, the Washington DC PBS station, it was bleeped out.

  • Eric Olsen

    It was bleeped in Cleveland too, which is strange because in the Chess Records episode, Marshall Chess swore like a mofo.