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.