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Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues – Devils and Angels

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There is no way anyone can accuse Martin Scorsese of imposing any kind of uniformity of style of format upon the directors he chose for the seven films that make up his PBS series The Blues. Thus far we’ve had his own fairly straight documentary “Feel Like Going Home” connecting the Delta with Africa, Richard Pearce’s ebullient doc centered on Bobby Rush and B.B. King “The Road to Memphis”, a very impressionistic and cinematic rumination involving the blending of archival footage and extensive recreation from Wim Wenders, “The Soul of a Man,” and last night’s episode from Charles Burnett, “Warming By the Devil’s Fire.”

“Warming” is Burnett’s semi-autobiographical dramatic reenactment of a journey he took as a boy in the ’50s to visit family back in Mississippi from his home in Los Angeles. Ironically, though the film is in the structure of a dramatic presentation (intercut with archival footage), it is also the most overtly educational of the films thus far because the boy’s kind but hard-living uncle is something of a blues historian who makes the visit a crash course in the meaning and ambivalence of the blues.

Burnett wrote he hoped to achieve this:

    Says Burnett: “The sound of the blues was a part of my environment that I took for granted. However, as years passed, the blues slowly emerged as an essential source of imagery, humor, irony, and insight that allows one to reflect on the human condition. I always wanted to do a story on the blues that not only reflected its nature and its content, but also alludes to the form itself. In short, a story that gives you the impression of the blues.”

And this is exactly the film’s strongest point: Burnett conveys the atmosphere and taste of rural Mississippi in the ’50s, with the world changing, but those changes not penetrating the backwaters all that quickly.

Burnett also palpably conveys the appeal of the diametric poles of the church and the roadhouse – each afford their own kind of “freedom,” but which is more “real”? Which more fundamental, which more true to the self? The legacy of slavery hangs over the landscape like a curse, like mud in the great brown river, with the overt vestige of Jim Crow segregation still very much in effect, and the ’50s South no more than a generation removed from the near-slavery of sharecropping and the forced labor levee camps.

The soundtrack – though a bit chaotic – is brilliant as well with selections from Big Bill Broonzy, Elizabeth Cotten, Reverend Gary Davis, Ida Cox, Willie Dixon,
Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Vasti Jackson, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Dinah Washington, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the reappearance of Son House and Muddy Waters.

For much more on the series please see here.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Last night’s episode of “The Blues” was a little on the lame saide, but it did take the unwary viewer into the nasty side of the music. Ever heard of a song called “Shave ‘`Em Dry?” Scroll down for the unexpurgated version. Little Kim clearly had nothing on Lucille Bogan.

  • AntFreeze

    Each nights show is getting better. Monday nights primary goal seemed to be proving that white boys can not play the blues. Nick Cave, John Spencer, Lou Reed, Beck, and even Cream just royally sucked when they attempted to interpret others songs. Luckily Bonnie Raitt single-handedly redeemed us pigmentally challenged. Los Lobos also excelled. Last night made me order a Lightnin Hopkins cd. Finally a reason to turn on my TV!

  • Eric Olsen

    AF, I’m not sure if each one is getting better, but with each episode the series itself seems to be accumulating weight. Maybe it works better en toto than separately, which is interesting because they are all pretty different from one another.

    And I agree tht the musical segment with the white people doing J.B and others was the low point. I like Jon Spencer, but it didn’t seem to fit, Nick Cave was not good, Lucinda was ick – Bonnie and Los Lobos were definitely the highlight of that section.

    I love Cream’s version of “I’m So Glad” but the live footage they used didn’t do the song justice.