Lightning in a BottleReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/04/05 17:47:49
It’s quite simple, really: if you love music, then you must see “Lightning In a Bottle.” No excuses.The film captured a concert held at Radio City Music Hall in February 2003 that was produced in part by Martin Scorsese on the heels of the “Blues” documentary miniseries he made for PBS. (“Lightning,” both the concert and the movie, was underwritten by Volkswagen, making it, too, feel like a public TV special. Oh, and the audience consists mainly of rich, goofy-looking white folks, again, making it look like a PBS special. But neither factor plays at all into the enjoyment of the actual concert, so I digress.)
What a concert it is. It’s the history of the blues (and, by association, a pinch of jazz and rock, too) as told through song. The lineup of artists alone is enough to cause one’s jaw to drop: India.Arie. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Ruth Brown. Solomon Burke. Natalie Cole. Shemekia Copeland. Robert Cray. Chuck D. and the Fine Arts Militia. David “Honeyboy” Edwards. John Fogerty. Macy Gray. Buddy Guy. John Hammond. David Johansen and Hubert Sumlin. Larry Johnson. Angélique Kidjo. B.B. King. Keb’ Mo’. The Neville Brothers. Odetta. Bonnie Raitt. Vernon Reid. Mavis Staples. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. James “Blood” Ulmer and Alison Krauss. Kim Wilson. And then there’s the backup band, which includes Levon Helm, Dr. John, Steve Jordan, Danny Kortchmar, Ivan Neville, Larry Taylor, and Willie Weeks.
Do I have your attention now?
Here’s how good this concert is. Not even the appearance of the Aerosmith can ruin it. Yup, Steven Tyler’s looking more and more like Bruce “Cracker With a Harmonica” Willis these days, but no matter. They do a solid job on “I’m a King Bee” (more impressive is their rendition of “Stop Messin’ Around,” found among the bonuses on the DVD), and it says a great deal about this show that they’re among the weaker performers. (Another potential bathroom break excuse is an extra-greasy David Johansen, who screams his way through “Killin’ Floor.”.)
The rest of the concert is one show-stopper after another. John Fogerty revisits “Midnight Special.” Angélique Kidjo teams up with Buddy Guy for “Voodoo Child.” Ruth Brown, Natalie Cole, and Mavis Staples team up to sing “Men Are Like Streetcars” to an old friend. India.Arie reinterprets “Strange Fruit.” B.B. King kicks out his classic “Sweet Sixteen.” Odetta takes us back with “Jim Crow Blues.” Former Public Enemy front man Chuck D. brings political rap to John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.”
And that’s not even getting started, but I should probably stop before I ruin all of it for you. Needless to say, the concert boils over with red hot coolness, and much like the performances in “Standing In the Shadows of Motown” and “Only the Strong Survive,” everything seen and heard in “Lightning” is ready to floor the viewer. This is music for which there are not enough superlatives.
Intercut with the performances are backstage and rehearsal footage, interviews with the performers, and vintage clips of those precluded from appearing due to that pesky thing called death. It’s all a treat, and even if it’s only informative enough to give the viewer a rough sketch introduction to the genre (it doesn’t try to be more, nor should it have to), at least it’s great fun. One great moment comes when B.B. King recalls the troubles of being a bluesman in an age when audiences wanted soul or rock: “When they said ‘blues,’ hey, it’s like being black twice.”
Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “King Arthur”) and editors Bob Eisenhardt, Keith Salmon, and Philip Shane get the flow just right, bringing us extra footage right when we need it. Fuqua has studied the great concert films and shown us that he do something just as good. (Catch the fun moment in which Odetta, during rehearsal, berates the band for overpowering Ruth Brown. “We do not need to hear her fighting the band!” she demands, to which Brown, still recovering from a recent stroke, jokingly answers, “I’m so glad to get the gig, I’ll scream.”)
Fuqua even manages to turn such an oversized venue as Radio City into an intimate blues club. By getting up close both on stage and backstage, the director makes what could have been a sterile, formal event into more of the party the music involved deserves.
If there’s one complaint about the concert, it’s with the format. Too many musicians come and go all too quickly; one sees a lineup like this and dreams of a wild jam session. We get the jams, but the shuffle-’em-on, shuffle-’em-off context in which many of the stars appear is frustrating. Come on, did they really have any place better to be? Or did they merely not wish to upstage their colleagues? By the time B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, and Robert Cray team up for a grand finale, we’re left wondering where everyone else is… or, at least, why so few of the performances were done in such a satisfying group style.
Then again, that could be a time issue, as obviously we’re not getting to see the entire concert here. Whether or not some better performances were left out of the film is a question only those in attendance could answer. And besides, what we get is impressive enough that such a complaint sounds a bit spoiled, like I’ve been given three bars of gold and cried that I wanted four.So I have no reason to whine about such a minor issue as this. Instead, I will simply repeat my opening argument, that if you love music, then you must see “Lightning In a Bottle.” No excuses. The film, like the concert, is a celebration of the blues, as given by those who know it best. It’s a perfect gift of music to both those who love the genre and those who are just now getting to know it. Even goofy-looking white folks.
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