In 2003, PBS aired the Martin Scorsese produced 7 part documentary miniseries “The Blues”. Two years prior, they ran the mammoth 17 hour “Jazz” which covered the blues influence on its companion American musical style. It’s fair to say that it is a crowded corner when it comes to nonfiction films about the history of the blues. Nevertheless, this did not deter Patrick Branson from taking a stab with his documentary “America’s Blues”.
“America’s Blues” plants its feet firmly in Clarksdale, Mississippi as ground zero for the invention of Mississippi Delta blues. Starting with its origins during slavery, through its commercial peak during the days of Chess Records, and traces its influence on Jazz, R&B, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Along the way it gets to the bottom of the Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil legend, tells tales of a young Jimi Hendrix being stolen away from the Isley Brothers, and introduces the viewer to Curtis Salgado, who was the template for Dan Aykroyd’s character of Elwood Blues. Essentially a talking head documentary, Branson scores some great interviewees including Spike Lee musical collaborator Terrence Blanchard, Ira Newborn, Jimmi Mayes, and Leo “Bud” Welch. The interviews play over archival photographs and footage of iconic bluesmen and performances. Unfortunately, while blues music runs underneath the entire film, it’s mostly taken from the public domain and suffers from a lack of access to some of the more important songs it references. When talking about the blues influence on British Hard Rock, it alludes to the Led Zeppelin version of “When the Levees Break”, but we don’t hear the song on the soundtrack.
Because the blues is such a sprawling subject that seeps into every type of popular music that has come since, it usually takes a massive amount of time to cover. Branson may have been better off focusing on a particular musician, venue, or record company. There are seemingly countless bizarre avenues to go down and plenty of people eager to tell the tales, but “America’s Blues” plays it fairly safe in its examination.
The film finds blues in healthy shape today by showing how the younger generation is keeping its spirit alive. For anyone unable or unwilling to sit through the Scorsese PBS miniseries and wants a primer on the subject, “America’s Blues” is a good place to start. Just don’t expect to hear much of the music being discussed.