Lightning in a Bottle directed by Antoine Fuqua, produced by Margaret Bodde, Alex Gibney and Jack Gulick with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt and Ruth Brown. 103 minutes. A Sony Pictures Classics/Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (November 19). Rating: NNNN
The year of the blues created some intriguing cultural anomalies, including the emergence of Martin Scorsese as a leading proselytizer for this deeply American musical form.
Lightning In A Bottle is a concert documentary covering a mammoth blues show at New York's Radio City Music Hall that featured everyone who's anyone in the blues, and several performers who aren't. In keeping with his pedagogical impulse, executive producer Scorsese opens the evening with some history lessons, which continue throughout the film in the form of superimposed photographs of sharecroppers' shacks and desperate Southern poverty.
When it comes to America, there's no poverty like Mississippi poverty, but here we see the old American leftist impulse to reduce cultural product to sociological determinism. Anyone notice that celebrations of the classic American popular song rarely feature montages of Lower East Side tenements? Irving Berlin and the Gershwins didn't spring from wealth either, but somehow it seems less important because they had piano lessons instead of learning to slide notes on a diddy-bow nailed to the side of a barn in the Mississippi Delta.
Despite the best efforts of the producers to turn the evening into a history lesson, it's a lot of fun, with expected highlights - Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Shemekiah Copeland with Robert Cray - and some unexpected treats, like the extraterrestrial pairing of James Blood Ulmer with Allison Krauss for a performance of Sitting On Top Of The World and Solomon Burke, a blinged-out Buddha, rocking the house without leaving a chair he occupies like a throne.
There are low points, too. You have to put up with the embarrassing performance of David Johansen on Killing Floor to get the accompaniment from Howlin' Wolf's legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and the fact that Aerosmith cut a really bad blues album is no excuse for allowing Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to stink up the joint with a desecration of Slim Harpo's I'm A King Bee. As for Chuck D. and the Fine Arts, I'm sure they mean well.
As musical evenings go, Lightning In A Bottle is worth catching for the stars, sure, but check out the smoking house band that features Danny Kortchmar and Keb' Mo' on guitars, Dr. John on piano, Steve Jordan and Levon Helm (looking healthier than he has in years) on drums and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds on harp.
Though it doesn't try to, the film underlines a strange phenomenon of blues music: on the stage we see almost all black faces and in the audience almost all white. That the venue is Radio City Music Hall is a big factor, but not the only one.
The younger performers - Chuck D. and Copeland - are a bit out of place in a show with septuagenarians like King, Honeyboy Edwards and Ruth Brown and sexagenarians like Odetta and Guy, in which 50-somethings like Bonnie Raitt and Natalie Cole qualify as young hotties. Copeland's second generation - her father's the legendary Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland - and Chuck D., apparently at loose ends since the breakup of Public Enemy, really doesn't "get" the blues, even though he may occasionally get the blues.
Enjoyable overall, and director Antoine Fuqua usually has the camera in the right place. Though with a running time well under two hours, I think we're all waiting for a special edition DVD with another hour of performance footage. Or two.
That would be nice.