This review was corrected on November 4, 2004.
The seven-title musical docu series “The Blues” kicks off on a high note with “The Soul of a Man,” Wim Wenders’ exhilarating and involving salute to three legendary musicians little known by the general public: Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and J. B. Lenoir. Wenders succeeds not only in putting these American composer-performers in the context of their times and in demonstrating their influence on subsequent generations of musicians, but also succeeds in putting them in “the bigger picture” of the human spirit itself. This hugely enjoyable film, riffing from historical pastiche to archive footage, from filmed material to concert performances, has the stuff to go way beyond music fans, doing for the blues what the director did for Cuban music in “The Buena Vista Social Club.” The fab music is also a shoo-in for a bestselling CD.
Laurence Fishburne is the voice of the ghostly spirit of Blind Willie Johnson, a Texas gospel singer who made his mark with several recordings for Columbia in 1927 — including “The Soul of a Man.” Wenders’ fictional re-creation of the singer-guitarist playing on a small town street corner so uncannily mimics newsreel footage that only its exceptional technical quality betrays the fact that it was shot for the film with Chris Thomas King (the blues singer found at the crossroads in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) playing Johnson.
The song is craftily intercut with Marc Ribot’s modern cover of the song, a strategy used throughout to provide new perspective on the songs and show their longevity and adaptability.
First part of pic successfully gives a sense of place through views of bootleggers, cotton-pickers, and homeless families during the Depression. Next figure to be introduced — again in a clever B&W pastiche of historical footage — is Skip James (brought to life in another excellent trompe-l’oeil perf by Keith B. Brown), a Mississippi-born guitarist, pianist and singer. In 1931, James was discovered by a record producer; he recorded 18 key tracks in a single session for him.
Though he made blues history, James earned nothing from the recordings and dropped out of sight for 33 years. The real James returns at the end of the film as a sick old man, pulled out of a hospital to appear at the 1964 Newport Festival, where he stunned young listeners. Cream’s hit cover of his song “I’m So Glad” earned him enough money to undergo cancer treatments and record new songs.
Lucinda Williams, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Bonnie Raitt — along with Beck, Lou Reed and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion — are among the performers shown singing James’ mesmerizing songs such as “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” and “Devil Got My Woman.”
An extraordinary performance by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers singing “J.B. Lenoir Is Dead” introduces the film’s third hero. Also born in Mississippi, Lenoir worked out of Chicago in his zebra-striped tuxedos. Director Wenders does a cameo as a long-haired young film student searching for info on the elusive singer-composer. He discovers a likable Swedish-American couple, the Seabergs, who made two amateur documentaries on Lenoir in the 1960s. The docus were refused by Swedish TV, for which they were made.
These home-style recordings of Lenoir singing and playing in his home are liberally used here. Again, the songs are intercut with modern covers by the likes of Los Lobos (who perform “Voodoo Music” written by Lenoir and Willie Dixon), Shemekia Copeland and T Bone Burnett. Cassandra Wilson’s moving rendition of “Vietnam Blues,” intercut with footage of planes and bombings, illustrates the political side of Lenoir’s songs; his “Alabama Blues” is shown with footage of civil rights and Ku Klux Klan marches and a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who Lenoir resembled). Lenoir’s untimely death in a 1969 car accident followed James’ death two years earlier from cancer.
Wenders persuasively insists that these “songs of poor men” will survive. Images of the Voyager traveling beyond the solar system with blues songs aboard for the edification of alien listeners makes a powerful final statement. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that James became a Baptist minister and Lenoir melded the blues with gospel.
Lisa Rinzler’s eye-fooling DV cinematography is impeccably blown up to 35mm. The lovingly recorded Dolby sound is worth a trip to the best sound theater in town.