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BMG presents
The Howlin' Wolf Story (2003)

"He could rouse an audience. He'd walk that bar and crawl it 'n jump up 'n down on it, then he'd go out the door, howling out there on the street, blowing his harmonica...."
- Jody Williams

Review By: Joy Howe and Mark Zimmer  
Published: November 25, 2003

Stars: Chester Arthur Burnett, Hubert Sumlin, Barbra Marks, Bettye Kelly, Son Horse, Bukka White, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters
Other Stars: Mark Hoffman, Robert Gordon, Richard Shurman, Sam Phillips, Sonny Williams, Paul Burlison, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones
Director: Don McGlynn

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild language)
Run Time: 01h:27m:20s
Release Date: November 04, 2003
UPC: 828765663199
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+B-C+ C+

DVD Review

You will wanna jump up and slap your gramma after you've watched this Blue Seas Production DVD released by BMG on the Bluebird label, it's so good. This one will get you happy and hopping, whether you are a blues fan, rock 'n' roll fan, any other kind of music fan; local history buff, Southern history buff, Chicago history buff, early rock 'n' roll producing, mule lover, rail fan, vintage clothing fan, dance fan. You name it and it's here. Well, perhaps if you only love music and are impatient with any sort of live interviews, no matter how low-key and personable, you might find that this is not enough of a "concert" type production.

Don McGlynn has compiled a seamless and pleasureable trip back in time and location, with much use of some excellent black-and-white archival film and other clips that have the immediacy of home movies. After a haunting introduction of some actual wolf howls from nature, McGlynn takes us first to the Rolling Stones and Howlin' Wolf appearing on TV's Shindig in 1965. Brian Jones speaks briefly about the pleasure of having Howlin' Wolf play on the same stage with them. There is a film segment of Mick Jagger singing Little Red Rooster, but he seems truly anemic compared to Howlin' Wolf just sitting on a chair singing. Then we see some film of Wolf at his prime, vivacious and full of squirmy shimmy and general cutting up. Various artists such as Willie Dixon and Son House explain in simple words where the blues spring from: poverty, emotion, romance. A number of performances are shown, sampling Wolf's stage presence with him licking the neck of his guitar.

The film moves on to the Delta and Wolf's beginnings. His early history is interspersed with clips of his musical context, like Son House singing John the Revelator. Much later, we see Wolf in Chicago in an intimate performance space, quietly taking to task an inebriated Son House for wasting his talent. The history of the Delta blues and Howlin' Wolf's move to West Memphis and then Chicago, is laid out in a simple and natural way with very little dry lecture, and much vivid footage that transports one back to those days. The documentary goes back to the Mississippi Delta in the period between the wars, when the rural black culture centered around cotton picking, plowing with mules and singing gospel songs. The film footage used is artful and remarkable in content, backed most gracefully with subtle Delta blues. The narration is informal and all of a piece with the images and music. No need to grit your teeth and wait for the good part; its ALL "good part."

After the Delta, Howlin' Wolf and the blues tradition became the hot thing in Memphis and West Memphis, and the film moves right into the blues clubs with them. The location then changes to Chicago with the emigration to the north of the rural folks after World War II. The great mule film footage is swapped for amazing old film of trains in switching yards to the rhythm of Smokestack Lightnin'. A visit to Silvio's Restaurant (now a vacant lot) for one of the continuous blues performances in the 1950s and '60s is vivid, and must be very rare. You can practically hear the glasses clink and the chairs scrape as the dancers are pulled to the floor by the beat. There is very little of the Ken Burns style of combining many still photos and professional voice narration running over it. This documentary contains mostly actual moving film, which best captures Wolf's every smile and wide-eyed "wolf" stare.

Chester Arthur Burnett was Howlin' Wolf's real name. Interviews with fellow musicians, his daughters, and producer/biographer fill in the personal details of this man who was both a kind and dedicated family man as well as a vivacious performer. This material is seldom dry, but it is thorough. We hear a sad and touching account of his mother's refusal to accept him and his music even after he became famous and prosperous. We are brought into his stubborn refusal to quit working when he develops kidney illness after a car accident. His decline and refusal to quit playing as well as still photos of his last appearance on stage will bring a tear for this very real and wholesome yet fun-loving man.

The blues pieces that are performed include How Many More Years? (the rare Shindig footage), Smokestack Lightnin', I Am the Wolf, At the Bottom, Little Red Rooster, Shake It for Me, Dust My Broom, and Goin' Down Slow. Other blues greats who speak or perform are Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Bukka White, Hubert Sumlin, and Son House.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The period film and video are a mixed bag in general; they range from surprisingly clean film to muddy kinescopes. Contrast is often a bit high, but that seems to be an issue with the source material rather than the transfer, since the modern segments are well rendered if a bit dark. Black levels are generally quite good. Detail ranges from acceptable to poor. On the whole, quite acceptable considering the archival and rare source material.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono also is highly variable, with some segments quite clean and others suffering from substantial hiss and noise, and occasional electronic buzzing. It has about what one would expect for quality of aged mono, but doesn't appear to have had significant restoration or cleanup performed. But if you're used to scratchy old blues records you'll think this sounds pretty darn good.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:03m:26s

Extra Extras:
  1. Live radio performance
Extras Review: There are four extra features including some band history (6m:41s) by Sam Lay, one of the early members of Wolf's band. Another very interesting piece is a comparison (13m:45s) of various takes on the real nature of the friendship/rivalry between Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. A number of different people give their views, and many of them differ substantially. Very interesting for the Blues fan, to have this sort of background information. A short clip of Sam Lay's home movies (2m:58s) is included with bits of Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy together onstage, though there is no audio.

An August 1973 radio broadcast (4m:26s) that plays over some still photos features a live performance of an entire song without voiceovers. An alleged DVD-ROM feature didn't work in my DVD drive, so I'm not sure what that was supposed to represent.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

There's great pleasure here for the blues and rock enthusiast, with plenty of good information, though not exactly in a concert mode. The video and audio quality are about as good as can be expected for the circumstances under which the period film was shot.


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