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'Blues' out of rhythm

Infinitely rich subject matter suffers from a lack of a thematic line in the hands of seven directors -- though Wim Wenders gets it right.

September 28, 2003|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

It's oddly comforting to know that the voice of Blind Willie Johnson is drifting into deep space, bundled into the package of Earth data aboard Voyager I.

Johnson was a Texas blues singer with a spiritual bent and a fearsomely gruff voice, but his 1927 recording "Dark Was the Night -- Cold Was the Ground" is a slow, moaning, all but wordless meditation on mortality.

The story of that record's interstellar destiny is perhaps the defining segment in the 10-plus hours of "The Blues," the Martin Scorsese-produced series that premieres tonight on PBS.

The mystery and dread of Johnson's performance embody the primal allure of this most vital, adaptable and resilient of American music forms. And its movement into the void is a vivid symbol of the blues' ability to attain the highest spiritual dimension.

That's just one reason the blues has cast a spell for nearly a century. From any number of angles, this subject is as rich for exploration as PBS' other historical blockbusters -- on the Civil War, jazz, baseball.

Like them, it tells a story about America, forming a musical map whose regional distinctions and stylistic evolution trace the growth of African American society. It's populated by colorful, larger-than-life characters and is packed with compelling tales.

The art itself could be endlessly examined. The musical structure is simple and familiar but subject to infinite variation and renewal, and its words have carried eloquent messages of both personal torment and social change. For many, it's mythology and scripture, philosophical treatise and advice to the lovelorn.

Once an outcast music, it's now a staple of mainstream culture. The blues has been institutionalized, dramatized, sampled, gentrified, anthologized, adapted, rediscovered and re-rediscovered, honored, analyzed and documented.

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi turned it into a lucrative comedy shtick, and others have built nightclub chains on its 12-bar foundation. And it's not merely the province of cultists and blues societies. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks threaded the music of Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker into her Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play "Topdog/Underdog." And just last week the White Stripes, the band at the forefront of modern rock, delivered an energized take on House's classic "Death Letter Blues" to packed houses at the Greek Theatre.

The blues is pervasive and ever-present, the musical counterpart of the backyard barbecue and a base ingredient of jazz and rock 'n' roll. It has contributed iconic figures -- Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson -- to the nation's cultural pantheon. Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads is as much a part of American lore as Babe Ruth's fabled Called Shot home run in the '32 World Series.

Given that potential, all the stars seemed aligned for "The Blues," which comes as a crowning event in this congressionally decreed "Year of the Blues." After all, despite its presence and the vast scholarship on the subject, this music has never been corralled in the epic, popular manner of Ken Burns' landmark series on jazz.

Many viewers -- especially a PBS audience primed on Burns' clear, linear expositions -- will likely be expecting "The Blues" to fill that void.

Those folks will be singing the blues.

In what is either a daring artistic gamble or a harebrained scheme, Scorsese constructed his series by commissioning seven directors (including himself) to create feature-length, blues- themed films. The results inevitably contain fascinating moments, simply, but overall it's frustrating to see so much prime TV real estate squandered on tangential material and routine documentarianship.

The filmmakers responded with a variety of agendas and styles, from standard documentary to ambitious mixes of fiction and archival material. Their topics range from Scorsese's tracing of the blues to its "ancient origins" in Africa (tonight's overview opener, "Feel Like Going Home," at 9 on KCET) to the rehabilitation of a notorious psychedelic-blues album.

Issues of race and class and social upheaval thread through the entire series, appropriate for treatment of music so close to the heart of black America.

But the seven shows taken together don't maintain a thematic line. Scorsese put no restrictions on his filmmakers, so jazz fan Clint Eastwood's "Piano Blues" (9 p.m. Saturday) is as much about jazz as blues, parading Dave Brubeck, Pete Jolly and other jazz players to the bench to be interviewed, informally and awkwardly, by the director.

And in "Red, White and Blues" (9 p.m. Friday), Mike Figgis devotes his 90 minutes to British blues-rock musicians. Figgis never establishes the relevance of the discussion. Worse, he tries to pass off Tom Jones as a blues singer.

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