Director Richard Pearce followed blues superstar B.B. King and mid-level blues veteran Bobby Rush in their respective tour buses as they and other performers converged on Memphis for the annual Handy Awards in 2002.
We trace King’s career, admire his artistry, immense talent and the tenacity that has afforded him acclaim and luxury 50 years into his career. Though he is treated, and appears to perceive himself, as a Great Man, his desperately poor rural origins – and 250 shows each year – keeps his perspective keen, and prevent him from taking anything for granted.
After being rejected by the young black audience in the late-’50s, King persevered until the white rock ‘n’ roll audience – brought to the blues by rockers like Clapton, Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, and via the folk circuit – embraced him in the late-’60s with an enthusiasm he claims he NEVER received from black audiences. King was brought nearly to tears describing a night at the Fillmore West in ’68 where a primarily white crowd – his first – packed the club, stood up for his entrance, gave him numerous standing ovations throughout his performance, and made him feel appreciated. This wasn’t a multimillionaire icon talking – this was a very vulnerable human being – we were transfixed.
But as appealing as King was, Bobby Rush – a figure not blessed with King’s talent or luck – lit up the screen with his humanity, his enthusiasm, his charisma, his perspective, his practicality, his joie de vivre. This 66-year-old man, a professional performer for 49 years, is remarkably lean, strong and youthful. He dresses with the, um, flash of an earlier age, moves like a young man, and projects both peace and impishness from his unlined, handsome face.
If his soul-blues revue is a bit over-the-top and corny in a showbizzy way, he gives his predominently black club audiences exactly what they need and want. He can also drive and repair his own bus, which is comfortable if not luxurious. Rush is very much a mid-level performer who makes a good living from his work – he seeks no pity, but admits the grind would get him down (the man is 66 years old!!) if he didn’t love the music so. And man, that love is infectious – I would not be surprised if this film raises Rush’s profile considerably.
Clearly the unseen crew of the film – Pearce was his own cameraman – loved Bobby Rush, the affection is palpable. What’s not to love?
Richard Pearce will be online today at noon ET discusssing the film at the Washington Post site.