Kind of Blues
Antoine Fuqua’s Lightning in a Bottle Serves up a Thin, Watered-Down Taste of the Blues
Remember Blues Hammer, the white-collar, white-boy band that butchers the Delta blues during Terry Zwigoff’s dark comedy Ghost World? Well, Zwigoff’s satirical stab made a valid point: For many Americans, such cocky, jocky spawn of George Thorogood is the blues, while many innovators of the form toil on in obscurity. Director Antoine Fuqua’s (Training Day) new concert film Lightning in a Bottle aims to right this wrong—but, ironically, ends up validating it in many significant ways.
Like recent music documentaries Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Only the Strong Survive, Lightning’s lens looks to the present more than the past. As performer after performer takes the stage during a Radio City Music Hall concert held to honor the 100th anniversary of blues recordings, its message becomes clear: These guys and gals are still with us, still doing what they do. It’s a fine message. Unfortunately, many viewers—and not just blues purists—will find its presentation dreary and disheartening.
The film begins with participants arriving via limousine and eager crowds lining up around the block. Palpable, electric anticipation fills the air. With blues superstars including Buddy Guy and B.B. King—and a credible backing band featuring Dr. John—in the house, the film’s first minutes even contain predictions that the concert will unfold like a day in church or an evening in a down-South juke joint years ago.
Except it doesn’t. Set aside the limousines. Set aside the superfluous celebrity appearances from the likes of Bill Cosby. Set aside the inclusion of blues wannabes such as Bonnie Raitt and members of Aerosmith. Set aside the overwhelmingly white and (to all appearances) affluent audience.
Even with these mood-breaking distractions out of mind, the production values and many of the performances here feel more like those of a staid industry awards show than an old-time roadhouse. Songs once sung with just a guitar and vocal cords are now slick, big-band productions featuring wanky solos that ape rather than channel pain. Jumbotron-sized screens flash images telegraphing the message of each song; thus, should anyone in the world (let alone at a blues concert) still not know what Billie Holiday meant by that “Strange Fruit” she kept singing about, the gigantic photographs of lynchings towering over India.Arie during her version should clear things up.
Indeed, at its worst, Lightning is to the blues as Colonial Williamsburg is to colonial Williamsburg: history as field trip and commodity. That some of Lightning’s costumed re-enactors actually played major roles in the bygone era they’re hired to re-create only conjures a tragic, banal mood.
Granted, these complaints damn the concert itself more than Fuqua’s work. As a concert film, Lightning gets the job done: rehearsal footage abounds, as does backstage banter. During the concert, the elaborate multicamera setup gets the shots it should. That said, if Fuqua wanted to make a documentary instead of a concert film, he could have: This concert could have provided a perfect occasion to tell the backstory of the blues.
Instead, here the concert is the story. Fuqua digs into the past only when the concert itself does, with between-performer, sound bite-sized archival footage highlighting moments in blues history—moments so perfunctorily referenced that they’d lead us to believe that the extent of icons like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker’s musical legacy was to pave the way for John Fogerty onstage at Radio City, covering Leadbelly to a standing ovation.
One need only watch the brief archival clips Lightning provides of Waters, Hooker, and Son House to know this just isn’t so. Indeed, these juxtapositions damn the entire proceedings: Even B.B. King’s dignified, heartfelt headlining performance here comes across a bit like Blues Hammer in comparison.
Luckily, Lightning occasionally provides thrills that rise above compromised nostalgia. Early on, David “Honeyboy” Edwards gives a stripped-down, rootsy performance that aches with sincerity. But Solomon Burke steals the show with two mostly seated but completely riveting songs; the excitement he generates simply by standing up dwarfs other entire sets. Further, when Burke ends his classic “Down in the Valley” with a simple exhortation of “Peace, no war,” his words pack a much greater punch than Chuck D’s aggressive anti-war reworking of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.”
Blues aficionados will have to decide if a few cathartic performances compensate for nearly two hours of thin, watered-down riffs on the music they love. But those newly curious about the blues should track down some Robert Johnson recordings instead. Sure, a few newbies will likely begin a lifelong love of the blues with Lightning; but to recommend they take this indirect, booby-trapped road is akin to recommending a Beatles novice start with a Ringo Starr concert rather than a copy of Sgt Pepper’s.