A correction was made to this review on Feb. 24, 2004.
In “Lightning in a Bottle,” helmer Antoine Fuqua shapes the February 2003 Radio City Music Hall “Tribute to the Blues” that kicked off the federally mandated “Year of the Blues” and Martin Scorsese’s elaborate, multimedia blues project into a compact, fast-paced and entirely joyful celebration. Undeniably powerful on the bigscreen, pic will play well to fan base and newcomers alike before settling in as an ancillary mainstay — particularly if DVD footage restores the sizable chunk of playing that didn’t make the final cut.
Following glimpses of the massive pre-concert backstage meet ‘n’ greet and a brief intro by a grinning Scorsese, whose Cappa shingle has a prominent co-production credit on all facets of the initiative, pic settles into groove of performance, historical/anecdotal tidbit, more performance. The many highlights include Natalie Cole tearing up W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and multiple perfs by Solomon Burke, Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Guy, in particular, shines throughout, penultimately with Angelique Kidjo on a fierce version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.”
Of the artists who’ve demonstrated a love for the blues but whose careers are more tangential to the form, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry do an energetic reading of Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee,” David Johansen joins guitarist Hubert Sumlin for a rousing “Killin’ Floor” (written by Howlin Wolf), and Chuck D daringly reimagines John Lee Hooker’s “Boom, Boom” as a pre-Iraq invasion anti-war anthem.
Burke sums up the night’s vibe in a post-closing credit quip: “We were all working together, we were all doing our best, and we weren’t getting paid.” The first two sentiments have been a hallmark of the massive “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues” project, which has or will include seven stand-alone feature docus (and the de rigeur DVD boxed set), 20 album releases, a quartet of corporate partners, radio show and book.
Obviously, hard choices had to be made to condense the extended show into a conventional running time. Fuqua’s fundamental decision to allow each selected performance to feature the entire song was pivotal. For historical or anecdotal reasons, narration and/or vintage clips occasionally intrude, but the film’s historical framework, coupled with lineup’s integrity, will satisfy novice and veteran alike.
Coming to the fore offstage are affable music director Steve Jordan, who appears in obvious ecstasy behind his drum kit and advises Macy Gray to “just have fun” with her perf of Lieber-Stoller’s “Hound Dog” (she does). And at one point, proud survivor Ruth Brown responds to Odetta’s demand that the band play softer to feature her voice by saying, “I’m so glad to get the gig I’ll just scream.” As docu makes clear, it was that kind of evening.
Tech credits are tops, with seven-member camera crew of d.p. Lisa Rinzler (who shot New York footage for Wim Wenders’ “Buena Vista Social Club” as well as his entry in the “Blues” series, “Soul of a Man”) capturing numerous intuitive moments of interaction between performers and adoring aud. Niko Bolas’ spacious sound mix is muscular. Pic carries a copyright to Blues Music Foundation, which benefits from concert and film proceeds.