A weak link in the seven films that comprise the “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues” series, Charles Burnett attempts to squeeze the history of the singers and players who recorded on 78s into an awkward story about an 11-year-old boy’s first trip to the South. There’s plenty of worthy historical footage in “Warming by the Devil’s Fire” — Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, several early female singers — to give it some nonfiction heft, but Burnett’s stunted and inconsequential fictional characters dull the impact of this history lesson.
Burnett’s goal is to expose the early blues masters, from Ma Rainey and Rosetta Tharpe to Charley Patton and T-Bone Walker, via a fictional tale of two travelers. He starts the story in 1956 in New Orleans where Junior (Nathaniel Lee Jr.) has stepped off the train from California and found no greeting party. His Uncle Buddy (Tommy Redmond Hicks) shows up soon thereafter to, essentially, kidnap the kid and keep him from relatives who will be waving the Bible at him night and day. Buddy puts himself in charge of showing the kid the kind of activity from which he will need to be saved.
Buddy’s a blues fan, with posters and album covers decorating his shotgun shack and outhouse in Mississippi. He starts every day but taking a 78 off one of the many piles that litter the small home and playing it on an old record player. Jr.’s an obedient sort — he just observes.
As Buddy takes Jr. around Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, Burnett uses the travels to weave in stories of blues musicians, funerals, lynchings, politics and religion. It’s consistently forced, even when a blind friend of Buddy’s complains the kids don’t want to know anything about Charley Patton anymore. (Isn’t that why a series like this exists?)
Both Hicks and Lee take a while to get comfortable with their roles. Buddy is, one supposes, a hustler, though why Burnett also makes him a frustrated musicologist with a half a book written is anyone’s guess. Junior is neither attracted to nor offended by Buddy’s lifestyle or the blues and Lee plays the kid with a stiff indifference that will rub off on most viewers.
“Warming by the Devil’s Fire” has the feeling of a rushed project: Burnett’s script needed a polish to get it to segue better from scene to scene and, in many of the interludes, there’s little sense of the actors responding to his direction.