In 1978, Martin Scorsese directed what's generally considered to be the greatest music concert film ever, The Last Waltz. A record of the last ever performance by The Band, Scorsese redefined how a gig should be shot for film. Today, nearly thirty years later, only Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense has even come close to topping it.
Lightning In A Bottle sees Scorsese return to the concert film, this time as Executive Producer. It documents a gig from February 2003, held at New York's historic Radio City Music Hall, celebrating 100 years of blues music. The line up sounds like an A-Z of blues music (apart from the curious omission of Eric Clapton), with legends like BB King, Buddy Guy and Solomon Burke joined by fans such as Aerosmith, Macy Gray. As the larger than life Ruth Brown poignantly notes during the DVD: "The only time we get to meet like this usually is at a funeral".
As Scorsese explains in his onstage introduction, the aim of the gig was to provide a chronological history of blues music, so we start with the fantastic voice of Angelique Kidjo performing tribal African blues, and then embark on an historical journey, showing how blues music became the voice of oppressed black people through history. It's a wonderfully educational watch, as well as immensely entertaining.
Of the performers on the night, it's the older generation who are the stars. Seeing the 88 year old David ‘Honeyboy' Edwards hollering his way through Gamblin' Man or Solomon Burke holding the audience in the palm of his hand while sat in a very comfortable looking chair puts paid to the myth that musicians should live fast and die young. The dignity and enthusiasm of these artists put their younger counterparts to shame - one participant, Hubert Sumlin, lost a lung shortly before the gig and still puts in a superb performance. BB King's spot, meanwhile, is almost worth the price of the disc alone, his face a picture of joy and passion as he peels off another effortlessly brilliant guitar solo from his beloved Lucille.
Although blues is thought to be a male dominated genre, there are some storming performances from female performers here as well. Bonnie Raitt is as classy as ever, Mavis Staples really kicks the evening off with a old Blind Willie Jefferson song, as well as a witty rendition (with Ruth Brown and Natalie Cole) of Men Are Like Streetcars - only spoilt by a puzzling appearance from a disorientated looking Bill Cosby. The future is also well represented by Shemekia Copeland who performs a blistering duet of I Pity The Fool with one of the few men who could hold a candle to the old legends, Robert Cray.
It's the younger stars who don't come over that well. Macy Gray does her best space cadet impression, slurring her way through Hound Dog (not helped by rehearsal footage in which she appears not to have even heard of the song before), while Chuck D hijacks the evening by turning John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom into an anti-war statement. Laudable sentiments to be sure, but it's not what the evening was about and the rap treatment destroys a classic song. That sound you hear during Chuck D's performance will be Lee Hooker spinning in his grave.
Director Antoine Fuqua, who directed the great Training Day and the not so great King Arthur, does a nice, unshowy job, just letting the music do the talking without any unnecessary camera tricks. His interesting, if rather workmanlike, interview on the special features demonstrates his love and passion for the music as well.
If you're a fan of blues music, then this is a compulsory purchase and makes a fine companion to Scorsese's mammoth TV series about blues music. The mix of fascinating archive material (including footage of Jimi Hendrix watching a young Buddy Guy perform), entertaining interviews and concert material means that the running time of nearly two hours flies by. If blues has never appealed to you, then it's worth checking out anyway, if only to see exactly how influential this most timeless of genres really is.