Pale Blues

Sam EricksonThe blues is the best music, and Martin Scorsese is the best film director—I shan't consider arguments to the contrary—and so you'd figure that the Scorsese-produced film series The Blues (commencing Sunday on KCET and airing over the next six nights) would be the best thing ever to warm your cathode, correct?

Negatory, mojo breath.

To my eternal disappointment, The Blues is an exasperatingly schizophrenic affair. When it succeeds, it does so with breathtaking passion and insight; but where it fails, it does so as an infuriating crime against the very music it purports to champion.

The most glaring culprit would be the Wim Wenders-directed segment, The Soul of a Man, in which we're subjected to such “bluesmen” as Beck (Beck?!?), Lou Reed, Nick Cave, T-Bone Burnett and Jon Spencer serving up “interpretations” of classic blues songs. This elite Yankee preoccupation with pop-music trendies who know from the blues like John Goodman knows from Dr. Atkins serves as a disrespectful misinterpretation of the music's cultural legacy at the altar of low vogue. The nadir of this shameful episode occurs with Spencer's turn at bat: Jonny Boy apparently wants us to recognize that he's punk as shit by screaming a stream of potty words for no apparent reason during his ear-bleeding, atonal, white-boy performance. When he meets up in Hell with honky-hatin' Little Walter at some future juncture, I hope he's prepared to be sliced up like a Thanksgiving turkey lacking dark meat. As if the “music” and intent of this entry weren't despicable enough on their own terms, Wenders' pretentious, stupefying film-student direction, rife with faux re-creations of silent-film footage, purposely choppy camera work and inexplicable industrial imagery, comes off like Ed Wood OD-ing on '80s-era MTV.

Then we have Marc Levin's Godfathers and Sons, a toadying bio of Chess Records scion Marshall Chess, a leering, self-aggrandizing weenie who comes off as the living embodiment of the dark, collective soul of every record exec who ever parted the ass-cheeks of an unsophisticated, southern black musician. Chess' most notable accomplishment was subjecting Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf to recording misguided psychedelic albums in the late '60s; here, he reunites the so-called “Electric Mud” band in the studio with rappers Chuck D., Common and some insufferable, know-whut-I'm sayin' turntable cretin to corrupt the blues for a whole new generation.

If the Wolf project was a musical and cultural abomination (of which the great man notoriously commented, “They made me record dog shit”), the Waters album was at least occasionally curiously inspired. However, this gathering of faded studio hacks (who weren't blues players to begin with) coupled with the imposition of noise-spewing hip-hoppers results in the unpalatable, aural equivalent of a toddler finger-painting with a bowl of strained peas. To his credit, Chuck D. seems a likeable and earnest man, genuinely captivated by the history and sociology of African-American music, yet he's so deeply out of his league in his endeavor to graft rap onto the blues that you feel pity for the guy, even as his feeble efforts induce cruel chortles. This segment, at least, never bores; it's akin to witnessing a gory airplane crash from which you cannot avert your gaze.

Contrast these vile frauds with the Scorsese-directed Feel Like Going Home, by leagues the highlight of the series. Here, a roots-seeking musical journey by contemporary blues giant Corey Harris is lovingly recorded for posterity, as he explores the meaning of a near-extinct folkloric tradition. It's a captivating voyage in which the immensely appealing Harris travels the South to pick the brains of primal patriarchs Otha Turner, Sam Carr and Willie King and trade licks and observations with fellow contemporary blues royalists Keb' Mo' and Taj Mahal. However, the most revealing segment features Harris traveling to Mali to jam and interact with a host of West African musicians, including the towering Ali Farka Toure, a brilliant multi-instrumentalist regarded as a deity in his homeland. As the duo performs, one experiences traditions, souls and continents merging on more than a merely musical level; Toure is moved to an emotional monologue regarding African heritage so passionate that Harris—and viewers—are left with lumps in the throat and tears in the eyes. The episode ends with a prescient quote from folk-music archivist Alan Lomax: “When the whole world is bored with automatic, mass-distributed video music, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture.”

Elsewhere, there's a British blues documentary, Red, White N Blues, featuring a stunning vocal performance from Van Morrison; a no-nonsense study of piano blues directed by part-time pianist Clint Eastwood; and Warming By the Devil's Fire, a fictional account of a young black kid receiving an education in the blues from his no-account uncle (this last segment is notable for much ham-fisted overacting). Throughout the series, rare, archival footage of numerous blues masters makes almost every entry worth at least a cursory peek, even if it sometimes comes in brief, frustrating snippets that are little more than a tease.

Ultimately, The Blues is a far less entertaining and educational entity than its PBS predecessor, Ken Burns' Jazz, to which it will bear inevitable comparison. Yet despite its flaws, if the series succeeds in cluing even a small population of the American public into the fact that this music doesn't begin and end with the career of Stevie Ray Vaughan, it will have served a noble purpose.

The Blues airs on KCET Sun., 9 p.m. Through Oct. 5.

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