Marc Levin draws the assignment, in Martin Scorsese’s “Blues” project, of finding a new way to examine the most oft-told blues story this side of the crossroads: Electric Blues 101. Story consists of a neighborhood (Chicago’s Southside), a record label (Chess), two superstars (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf) and a songwriter (Willie Dixon), but Levin goes the extra mile by connecting the legacy of Muddy and Wolf with modern hip-hop artists. “Godfathers & Sons” succeeds in making the blues come alive for a new generation.
Bonus is Levin’s technique — he adds a cinema verite take on the city’s contempo club scene to his blues ‘n’ rap story and adds a few B&W clips from the 1960s that make the blues appear regal, vital and thriving. For story and filmmaking technique alone, “Godfathers & Sons” is the crown jewel in the Scorsese series.
Levin’s project is smacked with good fortune at its outset as rapper Chuck D (Public Enemy) has just contacted Marshall Chess, son of label co-founder Leonard Chess, about a project involving Muddy Waters’ much maligned album “Electric Mud.” Point of view for much of “Godfathers” is that of young Chess, and he sees the “Electric Mud” update as a bit of redemption; in 1968, when he was trying to make his mark in his father’s shadow and revive Waters’ career, he wound up making what purists considered the worst blues album ever.
Chuck D’s interest in the album energizes Chess, who learned the record biz from his father and then ran the Rolling Stones’ empire for seven years. The two men hit city haunts — the original Chess studios at 2120 Michigan Ave., Maxwell Street, a club or two — and embark on re-assembling the Electric Mud band.
A portly crew, the band members arrive in New York and reminisce about their misunderstood project, bash critics and get to work making a modern version of the recording. What we hear is very solid funk that sounds more in tune with modern R&B than the blues of the 1960s.
Levin further personalizes the city’s scene via Sam Lay, the Chess session drummer who played with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the act that made the blues cool for many a teenage rocker in the 1960s.
Butterfield, who few will argue was the greatest white blues artist ever, led a multiracial band that kept a parochial view of how the blues should be played and in turn attracted an audience that would be receptive to the genre’s originals.
Via Lay, who supplied compelling home movies, Levin is able to directly connect his generation and its idols — Bob Dylan, for example — to the music Chess recorded in the 1950s; throughout the piece, fathers and sons are a recurring theme.
Visits with legends occur in two places: a darkened club where Koko Taylor is giving a whale of a performance, and the stage at the Chicago Blues Festival where Sunnyland Slim is trying to entertain 250,000 people. Outdoor footage at the fest has a news footage feel that’s out of character with the rest of the film and has the lightest impact on the overall story; curiously it works as a break from the intensity of the rest of the pic.
Mark Benjamin’s camera, however, is consistently in the right place throughout. Grainy black-and-white is so perfect for the music it creates a sense of urgency on par with the music playing. The heat and sweat is palpable.
PBS will air “Godfathers & Sons” Oct. 2.