His was about as good a summary as you can get in the written word.
But if you want to experience the blues, you have to hear it, to feel it. “The Blues” offers an unparalleled opportunity to trace the journey from Robert Johnson’s Mississippi Delta blues to contemporary expressions by the likes of John Coltrane, Fats Domino and Taj Mahal. The series works hard at capturing the essence of the blues, while at the same time tracing its origins from Africa to its maturing development in the American slave culture to its inspirational influence on the music we listen to even today.
One of the strengths of this measureless series is its archival footage of primordial blues greats that is rarely seen nowadays — early black-and-white film of giants in the genre like Son House, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Blind Willie Johnson and others too numerous to catalog. Their early performances are contrasted with contemporary covers by performers such as Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Los Lobos, B.B. King and Eagle Eye Cherry, to mention a few.
But “The Blues” is more iconoclastic than historical.
As developed by executive producer Martin Scorsese (“Gangs of New York”), each of its seven parts is by a different director. Scorsese leads off, paying homage to Delta blues and its African roots. Wim Wenders follows with an exploration of his favorite blues artists. A segment by Richard Pearce focuses on B. B. King and the role Memphis played in shaping the blues. Charles Burnett focuses his part on the contrast between the heavenly sounds of gospel music and the down-and-dirty side of the blues. Marc Levin explores Chicago blues with hip-hop artist Chuck D. and Marshall Chess (heir to the Chess Records legacy). Mike Figgis looks at how the British invasion of the ’60s brought the blues back to America. And in the final segment, Clint Eastwood explores his lifelong enthusiasm for piano blues.
But — and this is a big but — the strength of “The Blues” also is its weakness. Because the series is truly comprehensive, it is unlikely to be watchable or even bearable by any but the most devoted scholars of the genre. Instead of knitting together the history of a subject into a compelling story, as Ken Burns did with his lengthy expositions on the Civil War, jazz and baseball, “The Blues” meanders and lollygags. Scorsese, as the man in charge, bears the blame for allowing himself and his six fellow directors to do what directors long to do: Do it their own way. Just as a book can have only one author if it is to tell a story that holds its reader’s attention, so must a television series of this length have a unity of vision to compel viewer interest.
Musicologists of the future will pay homage to what PBS has done. Today’s S
“The Blues” airs on PBS at 9 p.m. Sunday-Saturday, Sept. 28-Oct. 4.
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