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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Deep' Digs Up Soul of Blues

November 15, 1991|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robert Mugge's "Deep Blues" (AFI/USA Independent Showcase at Laemmle's Grande, downtown) is a movie no blues lover, no popular music aficionado, and no devotee of American culture and folkways should miss. It's a genuine document, deep and earthy; a peek into our national soul.

Mugge has made many music documentaries--on subjects such as jazzman Sonny Rollins and actor-salsa king Ruben Blades--but none as affecting, rich or moving as this. It's his subject that takes hold. It's a film about the blues--more specifically, about the back country, Mississippi blues--and it wants to serve up the music at its most primal, welling right out of the poverty-stricken areas in the Deep South where it all began.

Mugge, guided by writer Robert Palmer, whose book "Deep Blues" inspired the film, takes us to Memphis' famous Beale Street and then deep into Mississippi. The performers we see are not necessarily famous, except locally. But they're all classic blues people, singing with heart, guts and soul, playing as if God or the devil had seized their fingers.

Sweat pours down the jowly cheeks of "Big" Jack Johnson--who drives an oil truck by day--as he pours out his anguished lament about the little girl who keeps asking when Mommy's coming home. Eyes nearly popping from his head, Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes wails out another "Jeremiad" and then bends down to pick his guitar with his teeth.

Wade Walton, a natty barber, who shaved and jammed with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin' Wolf, strops his razor to the beat. Jessie Mae Hemphill's old time fife and drum band plays the music that preceded the blues and was the link to its African roots. The others--R. L. Burnside, Jack Owens and Bud Spires, Booker T. Laury--all add their soulful portion. Everywhere, the blues keeps up its beat, its scream, its sly and salty innuendoes.

Most of the music is played in either darkened barrooms, the kind of dingy pleasure spots hillbillies call "honky-tonks" and earlier blues people called "juke joints," or on rural porches and back yards, withering under the raw sunlight. And when we hear it there, there's a jarring recognition. The music fits like a glove. Listening to it in these surroundings is almost like hearing it for the first time.

Yet Palmer is one of the main reasons "Deep Blues" is so good. Any movie with performers as excellent as these would be entertaining, but Palmer supplies something extra: the cultural grounding of the first-rate critic-historian he is and the indefinable comic spark of the natural moonchild. With his scraggly hair and faded student-work clothes, Palmer looks as if he stepped right out of a Robert Crumb drawing. With his mix of big-city affectations and back-country Arkansas drawl, he sounds the way Woody Allen might if he'd grown up in the Ozarks.

When Palmer and his producer, spiffy-bearded guitarist Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, travel over the backroads to talk to the aging bluesmen and women, we're always aware of a massive incongruity. This music, borne out of pain and suffering, nurtured by people who had precious few other ways to express their hurt, somehow spoke to and conquered the world.

The "devil's music," it was often called--perhaps to differentiate the blues from the Gospel hymns to which it bears such strong emotional ties. And, by the end of "Deep Blues" (Times-rated: family, despite some mature dialogue), we've traveled to the quintessential blues legend: young Robert Johnson, from Greenwood, Miss., who allegedly sold his soul to Satan to become the world's greatest blues guitarist, recorded 45 sides in a San Antonio Hotel and a Dallas office building and died violently before John Hammond could arrive to make him famous.

Palmer doesn't say it here, but Johnson--the composer of "Crossroads," "Love in Vain," and "Hellhound on My Trail"--is obviously the soul of what he's searching for. And the last few Johnson songs, played by young Lonnie Pitchford, show clearly how the blues began, how it lives on, how these bursts of seemingly transient anguish could, indeed, become eternal.

'Deep Blues'

A Radio Active Films and Oil Factory Ltd. presentation. Director/editor Robert Mugge. Producers Eileen Gregory, John Stewart. Executive producer David A. Stewart. Writer/interviewer/music editor Robert Palmer. Cinematographer Erich Roland. Music Big Jack Johnson, "Booba" Barnes, Junior Kimbrough, Jessie May Hemphill, Wade Walton. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG

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