Lightning In A Bottle


REVIEW by Willard Manus

Hollywood doesn't often pay tribute to the blues, largely because movies about the blues (with the exception of The Blues Brothers) have been poison at the box office. The blues remain of minority interest to the public, a fact which makes the release of LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE all the more remarkable. A big, lavishly produced, technically proficient documentary, the film celebrates the blues in proud fashion, thanks to the well-heeled company that financed it. Founded in 1997, Vulcan Productions is headed by Paul G. Allen, Bill Gates' ex-partner in Microsoft, and obviously has deep enough pockets to be able to take on chancey commercial projects.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, King Arthur), executive produced by Martin Scorcese and shot by Lisa Rinzler, LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE is centered by the Salute to the Blues concert held last year at Radio City Music Hall. A benefit whose proceeds went to musical education, the one-night show featured some of the brightest stars in the blues firmament--Buddy Guy, Keb' Mo', Robert Cray, Mavis Staples, Ruth Brown, Bonnie Raitt, Honeyboy Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, Solomon Burke, Odetta and B.B. King, among others.

Fuqua, Rinzler and their various camera teams have captured the concert in strikingly dramatic fashion. "Most concert films are bright and overlit," comments Fuqua in a program note. "You can't do a blues concert like that, you need a mood. I wanted Radio City Music Hall to be a moody, dark place that made you feel like you were in a juke joint down south, so you could actually feel it and smell it and see the sweat on the singer's faces. That's the blues--it's moody, you've gotta feel it and you've gotta see it."

The concert shots have also been enhanced by the backstage and rehearsal visits with some of the stars, giving the film a welcome personal dimension. Whether it's Ruth Brown talking about her recent stroke (which rendered her temporarily speechless) or Buddy Guy recalling his youthful days with Muddy Waters or Solomon Burke recounting a gig he played at a Klu Klux Klan rally--"I thought I was going to die"--LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE is packed with intimate touches that skilfully balance the stage pyrotechnics.

LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE also weaves archival footage into its narrative, giving a swift but accurate history of the blues. Utilizing material provided by The Blues Music Foundation, the film first looks at the African roots of the blues, capped by African-born Angelique Kidjo singing "Zelie" and "Voodoo Child." Next LIGHTNING references the music of the USA's black slaves and how it spread through the south, especially the Mississippi Delta, and was taken up in post-Emancipation days by the likes of Robert Johnson and W.C. Handy. With the northward migration of many African-Americans, the blues reached cities like Detroit and Chicago, where acoustic guitars gave way to electric ones and lyrics reflected urban as well as country concerns.

One of the many nice touches about LIGHTNING is the way it pays tribute to the past even when it is offering the work of a contemporary artist. When, for example, Mavis Staples sings "See That My Grave is Kept Clean," there is an on-screen acknowledgment that the song was first introduced by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Keb' Mo's on-camera rendition of "Love in Vain" tips its hat to its creator, Robert Johnson. Ditto John Fogarty and his rousing rendition of Huddie Ledbetter's "Midnight Special."

LIGHTNING runs a generous two hours and is packed with one memorable song after another, backed by an all-star house band led by drummer Steve Jordan and featuring such musicians as Dr. John, John Hammond, Danny Kortchmar and Kim Wilson, to name but a few. Thanks to them, Radio City Music Hall really rocked, with much of the audience up on its feet throughout the night, dancing in the aisles. The crowd loved the music, the musicians loved each other and the words they were singing--an outpouring of joy, warmth and respect that help make LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE the best blues film ever.