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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents
"When I think of what's going on here tonight, it makes chills run off me. Lucille even screams a little."
DVD ReviewAny fan of the blues or of Martin Scorsese's PBS series on them would have been itching for a ticket to Radio City Music Hall for February 7, 2003, for a Scorsese-produced concert that was the cherry on the sundae of his documentary effort—in one night, on stage was pretty much the whole history of the blues, with a galaxy of some of the brightest lights in the blues firmament. Lightning in a Bottle is principally a concert film, documenting that night; it also drops in a dollop of interviews and historical footage, giving a very rudimentary survey of the evolution of the blues, and a celebration of some of the greatest American music ever recorded.
Scorsese has an executive producer credit on this movie, and briefly appears on stage; the director here is Antoine Fuqua, taking on what would have to be a nerve-wracking assignment. Do you really want to be directing when your exec producer was the director of The Last Waltz, perhaps the greatest concert movie of all time? Anyway, Fuqua does serviceable work; his style is unobtrusive, which allows the performers to shine. The conceit of the concert was that it would guide the audience through the history of this music—it begins, then, with the songs of West Africa, and chronicles their evolution, as they were brought over by enslaved Africans, given an American tinge in the antebellum South, and came up north, to Chicago particularly, in the great postwar migration of African-Americans. So what's nice is that the concert isn't just a greatest hits package; on the other hand, its premise makes the evening a little didactic, and ensures that it's largely lacking in spontaneity.
But that's all right, principally because the level of musicianship is so high. Subtitles identify the performers, the songs they're singing, and who first recorded them, and there are many, many highlights. Keb' Mo' pays his respects to Robert Johnson, and Odetta, one of the grand old women of the blues, does the same for Leadbelly, with Jim Crow Blues—her performance brims with righteous indignation, and Fuqua provides useful context by superimposing period images: Klansmen in full regalia, hateful Coloreds Only signs. Some fine musicians, including Levon Helm and Dr. John, serve as a de facto house band, backing Natalie Cole on W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues, Macy Gray honoring Big Mama Thornton with a great throaty cover of Hound Dog, John Fogerty with more from Leadbelly (Midnight Special), and an array of others. Some of those performing, like Larry Johnson, are enormously talented but never got the acclaim to match; others are known better as sidemen (Hubert Sumlin, shortly after having a lung removed, pays his respects to Howlin' Wolf), and some are honored principally as mentors—Buddy Guy, for instance, is discussed here in the context of his protégé, Jimi Hendrix.
Occasional bits of rehearsal footage and backstage chatter are dropped in—Ruth Brown has a fine time holding court and Solomon Burke is delightful and informative as the self-appointed historian of the chitlin circuit—and batting cleanup is B. B. King, who has become the blues personified for a mass audience. If you love this music, you've probably got some quibbles about what's here and what isn't, but it's a pretty good overview, and so if you're not as informed about the blues, this might be a great place to start.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Inherent in shooting a live concert is the presence of visual imperfections, but taking that into account, this looks awfully good—steady camera work cleanly rendered in this transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: This right here is the reason to watch—the music sounds solid, well balanced and without excessive interference on this strong 5.1 track.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 Other Trailer(s) featuring House of Flying Daggers, The Fog of War, Winged Migration, Riding Giants, Masked and Anonymous, Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary
5 Deleted Scenes
Extras Review: Five bonus tracks from the concert are all worth checking out; presumably they were trimmed for purposes of running time, but there's good work from Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes, Mos Def, Buddy Guy, and Chris Thomas King. In an interview (07m:54s), Fuqua discusses his approach to the material—he wanted Radio City to feel like the world's biggest juke joint—and about his personal connection to the music, and about working for "Mr. Scorsese."
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsA respectful and soulful documenting of a concert brimming with talent from the world of the blues—not the last word on the music or on concert filmmaking, but if these tunes don't get your toes tapping and head nodding, you better check your pulse.
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