Lightning in a Bottle is a mixed bag of blues
Concert films inevitably feel like the worst seats in the house. Sure you can zero in on B.B. King's guitar fingering, but the performance seems to happen behind plate glass, sapped of all of the electricity of a live event.
The rare exception, like the 1970 Maysles brothers' Gimme Shelter, manages to capture the thrill of the moment while looking behind the scrim of showbiz to reveal all the personalities and the gritty, sordid details of concert promotion.
But the more obvious, conventional tack is the one taken by the blues rockumentary Lightning in a Bottle, which attempts to shoehorn an enormous musical phenomenon into a one-night, star-studded concert.
Lightning in a Bottle captures a February 2003 Radio City Music Hall 100th birthday party for the blues. But that wailing, melancholy, political, sexually charged form loses some of its stomach-churning properties when the mosh pit is filled with the kind of white guys and their sexy-dancing dates who keep Lands' End in business.
The blues are a changeable thing, made up of equal parts ecstasy and despair. But the combination packaged into a 106-minute form makes for an odd laughter and tears rhythm. One minute, video screens behind the concert stage show archival photographs of lynchings and segregated bathrooms to underscore the form's origin in Deep South horrors. In lighter moments, Bill Cosby makes a cameo onstage to play hapless male victim to Ruth Brown, Natalie Cole and Mavis Staples singing a saucy girl power number, "Men Are Like Streetcars."
Lightning in a Bottle is the usual benefit concert smorgasbord: a mix of old school players like Ruth Brown, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, B.B. King and the new breed of India.Arie, Macy Gray and Chuck D. singing a passionate but clumsy antiwar interpretation of John Lee Hooker's "Boom, Boom." Second generation "blues" men like John Fogerty and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry also appear, though they bring to mind the painful scene in Ghost World, where an actual blues legend on an acoustic guitar is upstaged by the electric guitar machismo of white boy retreads. The Dockers set packing Radio City is never so animated as when Fogerty is covering Leadbelly's "Midnight Special." The wail of electric guitars erases the tear-dripping chords, the exhausted exposition and deep, deep despair that allow musicians like Geechie Wiley or Robert Johnson to conjure up a bottomless well of suffering.
A Whitman's Sampler of musicians step up to offer their signature licks. The best moments — Buddy Guy and Angelique Kidjo's energy-packed rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child" and the despondent, false bravado James "Blood" Ulmer puts into "Sittin' On Top of the World" — make up for some tepid cover tunes like Natalie Cole's laughably hollow rendition of "St. Louis Blues."
There are efforts along the way to add some depth to the proceedings with behind-the-scenes interviews and archival footage of John Lee Hooker or Son House doing their things. Occasionally, someone will puncture the big money aura of the benefit concert, and say something profound. Ruth Brown, for instance, is a 75-year-old blues legend who believes men are especially attracted to the genre because it allows them to feel pain in public without losing their masculinity. Brown, who comes across as one of the brighter bulbs in this spectacle shows how the blues is one of the few musical forms where growing older means enhanced, not lessened, street cred.
Like Brown, the blues have aged well. But the culture that has sprung up around it, including the culture of concert films, hardly does it justice.