Feelin' bad never sounded so good

February 01, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Nobody asked me, but . . . you can take your newfangled music (anything post-Chuck Berry, I'm thinking), fold it six ways and put it where the moon don't shine. Gimme old-time music from that flat triangle of soupy dirt pie called the Mississippi Delta. Brother, I'm talking the blues, smoky and sad, shot through with regret and loneliness, the memory of women come and gone, chances lost or dropped, brown with the taste of whiskey, red with the hint of violence and green for overhanging mulch of vegetation . . . and deep blue for the blue of it. (Oh, I also like Dinah Shore a lot, too.)

PTC If blues is your wail, then get yourself over to the Orpheum, the brave little Fells Point rep house that is venturing into first-run territory with "Deep Blues," a documentary that takes its viewers through the juke joints and cribs of Mississippi to see the real thing.

The film, directed by Robert Mugge on a budget provided by British blues aficionado David Stewart (of Eurythmics fame) and more or less masterminded by blues expert and former New York Times music critic Robert Palmer, has swiftly acquired a reputation on the festival circuit. It's easy to see why.

The movie is of inestimable value in tracking down and recording some of the great blues artists, the old men who live in the countryside below Memphis, Tenn., but above New Orleans and who appear at little roadhouses or down-home clubs in cities like Greenville and Clarksdale in Mississippi. Some of them only appear on their back porches or out in the yard.

It's not like these guys have lost their album deals or have never been recorded in Dolby. Some of them have never been recorded, period. By tape recorders, even.

Like anthropologists, Palmer and his indefatigable pilgrims break new ground.

Somebody sign up "Big" Jack Johnson -- quick. Get this guy a contract. An oil-truck driver by day, "Big" Jack wails by night, music to beat the devil down, fast and strong, dark and long.

Some others: R. L. Burnside, Jack Owens and Bud Spires, Booker T. Laurey. Only Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes, who owns a club in Greenville, seems to have managed to make any kind of living from his gift.

The music -- all of it -- is profoundly moving and original; the blues is so American, so steeped in the nobility and tragedy of our native soil, our curses and our blessings, it can make you weep.

The only thing wrong with "Deep Blues" is Robert Mugge, David Stewart and Robert Palmer.

By that I mean that as an entree into a vanishing and fascinating world, it's fascinating, and as a document of musical preservation and performance, it's world class; as a movie, it's not much.

In fact, it would have been better had it been balder about its own sense of artlessness.

Conceptually, the movie aspires to the device of the invisible camera: It pretends not to be a movie, as if Stewart and Palmer are meeting on Beale Street in Memphis to start their tour and the camera observes them without acknowledgment.

Big mistake: Both men look grotesquely uncomfortable and mutter their way through scripted lines wretchedly.

They never establish a rapport, and Stewart, in particular, walks around as if someone has dropped an ice cube in his jockey shorts.

Moreover, one resents the vanity aspects of the production -- the camera keeps sneaking away from the blues brothers to worship the sight of Stewart tapping his feet or jiggling his head. He reminded me of Rex Reed on "The Gong Show" when they have someone sort of good on.

In the VCR of your mind, fast-forward through the ultra-hip Stewart to the blues singers themselves. They're so cool, they don't need to be hip.


"Deep Blues" documentary.

Directed by Robert Mugge.

Released by Tara Releasing.


*** 1/2

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