Our Top 10 Blues Films
Hollywood’s track record with blues (and its companion jazz) films is at best a spotty one. Many of their attempts at cinematic depiction have been riddled with historical inaccuracies, plagued by flawed casting or sabotaged by woeful and/or inadequate scripts and dialog. But here are a few that merit mention, even though some of them certainly have their problems.
(1) “Jammin’ The Blues” (1944)
Directed by Gjon Mili, who is much better known as a still photographer, this breakdown and visual documentation of a classic jam session earned an Oscar nomination. Great jazz players such as Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet and Harry “Sweets’ Edison interact in a 10-minute performance that is compelling from opening moments to closing refrain. One ugly bit of info that’s a mirror into racial attitudes of the time. Lone white contributor guitarist Barney Kessel was placed in the shadows to downplay his complexion and his hands were stained with berry juice so closeups would fool audiences into thinking (at least those who either didn’t know or wouldn’t look too closely) this was an all-black cast.
(2) “Last of the Blue Devils” (1980)
Bruce Ricker’s wonderful 90-minute homage to the Kansas City scene of the ’30s doesn’t just touch on swing era jazz, though that’s its foundation. It also delves into barrelhouse piano and blues, even early rock ‘n’ roll rooted in R&B thanks to Big Joe Turner wailing, “Shake, Rattle & Roll.” With recollections and appearances from Joe Williams, Count Basie, Jay McShann, Jimmy Forrest and Ernie Williams, among others, both these films reveal the links between the 12-bar blues form and jazz, showing that their audiences and styles were much closer in the past than some consider them today.
(3) “Leadbelly” (1976)
Huddie William Ledbetter, AKA Leadbelly, was a complex, powerful, often hypnotic singer and composer. This film only covered a portion of his life, mainly from the teens to the mid-40s, but it included his time on chain gangs and the impact of imprisonment on his personality and music. Roger Mosely earned more fame later on “Magnum P. I.,” but he did an above-average job in depicting the creative flair and simmering rage that were equally important components of the Leadbelly personality. It also includes performances of two Leadbelly gems, “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene.”
(4) “Bluesland – Portraits in American Music “(1993)
If you’re seeking a scholarly and inclusive approach, it’s hard to beat Ken Mandel’s early ’90s documentary. It includes contributions from the great critic Robert Palmer and famed scholar Albert Murray and examines everything from African origins and slavery’s impact to the blues’ connection with rock. Keith David wasn’t quite the voiceover star then he’s since become, but his commanding vocal narration adds spice to a well-researched and definitive (for its time) work.
(5) “The Blues Brothers” (1980)
John Landis’ musical comedy had its detractors in the blues community’s purist wing, and the characters of Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) Blues were already pop culture clichés before the film due to their Saturday Night Live fame. But while the story about their “mission from God” to save the orphanage where they grew up from foreclosure wasn’t exactly an epic one, the music (appearances from Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Cab Calloway, among others) and the chemistry between Belushi and Aykyrod still hold up. The sequel, however, was utterly forgettable.
(6) “The Commitments” (1991)
Though it was about soul rather than blues, it fits due to its tale about a dedicated Irish musicial entrepreneur determined to create the music he loves despite the fact he and his band is white and all his idols are black. Alan Parker smartly adapted the production from Roddy Doyle’s similarly titled novel and Doyle was one of the screenwriters, thus helping ensure a successful transition from print to the big screen. It was also filmed in Dublin and offered great shots of this historic world music city.
(7) “Cadillac Records” (2008)
The flaws in Darnell Martin’s depiction of Chess’ Records evolution into a blues dynasty have been extensively chronicled along with some of his more market-oriented casting decisions (exhibit A: Beyonce as Etta James). Any film about Chess where Phil Chess, Bo Diddley and Rice Miller, AKA Sonny Boy Williamson II, are missing in action has history deficiencies. But for all the knocks, it struck a chord among audiences who’ve ignored the blues for decades (young people, blacks under 50 especially) and received coverage in places like Vanity Fair that normally wouldn’t even mention a blues film, let alone publish a feature about it.
(8) “Crossroads” (1986)
Walter Hill’s updated cinematic variation on the Robert Johnson legend of selling your soul to the devil for innovative success got much better notices from rock fans than hardcore blues lovers. But it had a great soundtrack, and Ry Cooder provided the guitar parts for Ralph Macchio’s character. He played a classical guitar prodigy fascinated by the lure of Delta blues and the Robert Johnson legacy. There’s a climatic guitar duel with a seamy figure played by Steve Vai that makes sitting through everything else here worthwhile. Macchio also took tons of instruction from blues and classical guitarists to make his fake playing look authentic.
(9) “Sounder” (1972)
Martin Ritt’s gripping portrait of a black family struggling to survive as sharecroppers in 1930s Louisiana isn’t really about the blues, but it has one of the all-time great blues soundtracks and gets included more for that than the subject matter. Still, the acting is magnificent, especially Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson, and Kevin Hooks (now a major name in Hollywood as an executive producer and director) got on-screen training as a child actor.
(10) “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972)
Motown Productions, which made this for Paramount Pictures, intended it as a filmed promotional vehicle for Diana Ross in order to convince Hollywood she could do serious roles. But no one expected she would actually excel in her portrait of gifted singer Billie Holiday, whose life was ruined by drug addiction and male exploitation. Since it was based on Holiday’s 1956 autobiography, which subsequently was found to be both ghost written and riddled with inaccuracies, it’s not surprising the movie itself was more fictional soap opera than genuine biopic. But Ross gave her finest screen performance, ably backed by Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor and Scatman Crothers, among others.