When you’re hooked on the Blues you want it all the time: Parties! Weekend Festivals! Monogrammed Speedo™ underwear! Movies! Okay, maybe you haven’t found your passion for all of these yet, but you’ll get there. You’ll get there.
One of America’s most impactful art forms, it’s easy to find insightful documentaries. But what if you really want to invite someone over for “Blues and chill” comfortably wrapped in a Snuggie while tossing back a big buttery bowl of popcorn? Well wipe that butter off your hands and get ready for the greatest movies soaked in Blues-y-ness plus a cool story to enjoy!
I see you came prepared…
1950 Alabama, and the proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge is deep in debt. Desperate to bring back the crowds, Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis announces he’s hiring a famous guitar player, Guitar Sam, to save his club.
Watch for: the talented Keb’ Mo’ playing an all-seeing oracle with a slide guitar; the changing life for black Americans in the 50s; the electric guitar effect on Blues
Danny Glover, when not defending earth from Predator (below), plays piano and owns a Juke Joint. (Fun Fact: only one of these three things is true. Sadly, not the first. Or the last.)
Historical photo of world’s first interspecies Blues dance
He’s a surprisingly solid musician (I even DJ his song sometimes). But Glover’s not the only talent in this movie; take Mable John, who appeared on the big-time Motown and Stax record labels in the late 50s/60s. She plays an elderly Blues singer …of course, she’s a natural. Also making their film debut is dynamite Blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr (of Austin, TX) who turns on both his electric amp and his 1.21 gigawatts smile to try to win the day.
Watch this juke joint heat up, social conflicts ignite, and the booty shakin’ take over this party shack!
“B.B. King, Albert King, all these guys have stories about performing as somebody else early in their career” – writer/director John Sayles
The life and career of legendary rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles, from his humble beginnings in the South to his meteoric rise to stardom.
Watch for: the “What’d I Say” scene; a view of racial segregation in mid-century America; a mostly-accurate biography
The club performance scenes still give chills every time
This is a defining performance that could have easily gone bad by:
- aggrandizing the man until he appeared god-like
- bogging down under a tough tale of drugs and (ahem) curvaceous distractions
- focusing on the white-collar industry men who aided his career
Instead, “Ray” finds a rare balance that captures the creativity of the artist, the social strife of the 1950s and 60s, and the man himself (scars and all), then crafts it into finely-tuned entertainment.
Also, Jamie Foxx is a true musician, y’all, who learned how to play Ray’s songs just to act in the piano scenes himself. Props!
I never wanted to be famous. I only wanted to be great.” – the (real) Ray Charles
Black Snake Moan
A God-fearing Bluesman (Samuel L. Jackson) takes to a wild young woman (Christina Ricci) who is a victim of childhood abuse and bad decisions.
Watch for: Son House quotes on the Blues; R. L. Burnside-inspired music; the real 40lb (18 kilos) chain Ricci wore half the movie
If it’s kidnapping “but, like, for a really good reason” is it still kidnapping?? Well…yes. I mean, hell yes. But Hollywood calls it a “plot point”, or any excuse to have Samuel L. Jackson do this for, like, millions of dollars:
That’s $2mil per glaring eyeball
Moral dilemma aside (and this movie has tons of ’em), you’ll get an ear-full of gritty, heavy, southern Blues, including a party inside a packed juke joint (shot “MTV music video”-style). Bobby Rush, Precious Bryant, R. L. Burnside, Kenny Brown, and Mr. Jackson himself pound out tunes that even a non-Blues-loving buddy could enjoy, so invite them over and make them bring the popcorn.
Nothing a man can do when a woman make up her mind.” – Reverend R. L.
“Lightning Boy” Martone is a kid who can make a slide guitar sing. “Blind Dog” Brown is an old pro who knows the Blues. Together, they’re headed to a place where deals are made. And legends are born.
Watch for: Life lessons taught via the Blues; ’80s hair
Ralph Macchio — Wait, don’t stop reading!
“Sweep the Leg” is the hot new Blues move of 2017
Crossroads is a classic quest to sell your soul to the devil for Blues skills, just as in the myth of the immortal Robert Johnson.
Sure, Macchio’s acting chops are on par with a poodle who stays on camera because his attention is being held by a sausage juuuuuust off-scene. But he also trained with real Blues guitarists to make his fake playing look authentic. Combine that with his “acting”, add one ridiiiiiiiiculous finale, and you’ll want to make a double-helping of that popcorn to get through an enjoyable-yet-trashy-yet-poetic Blues journey featuring scenes like this:
Look at this old guitar here you been squeakin’ on. I bet you saw this thing in a music store and bought it just because you thought it was beat up! Well you got it all wrong. Muddy Waters invented electricity.” – Willie Brown
The Blues Brothers (1980)
A briefcase full of blues.
Watch for: the combo of real musicians with a comedy punch
This is it — the mecca of Blues flicks filled with real classic artists doing what they do best. As a bonus, the straight-faced comedy constantly pokes fun at how “Living the Blues Dream” means ending up with no money and no respect.
If you don’t know it, watch it. If you’ve seen it already, try some interesting trivia:
- The Blues Brothers were an actual band — their record dropped two years before the movie
- Aretha Franklin was afraid her waitress outfit wouldn’t be flattering — always a diva, as she deserves to be
- John Lee Hooker & James Brown shot their songs live because they couldn’t lip sync. Not that other artists ‘phoned it in’ — for example, Ray Charles “Directed us in [his song] and produced the track, for God’s sake!”
- Akroyd is a founder of the House of Blues clubs whose mission is “Promoting African-American cultural contributions of blues music and folk art.”
- How’d they get Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia a la Star Wars)? She was engaged to Akroyd at the time
…proving funny people can get whoever they want?
What kinda music do you usually have here?”
“Oh we got both kinds: country AND western!”
Blues Brothers 2000 (1998)
Elwood Blues must reunite the old band, with a few new members, and go on another “Mission from God.”
Watch for: Junior Wells, Isaac Hayes, B. B. King, Charlie Musselwhite, Lou Rawls, Koko Taylor, Jimmie Vaughan, Grover Washington, Jr., Bo Diddley, Erykah Badu, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Eddie Floyd, Aretha Franklin, Sam Moore, Wilson Pickett ...the list just goes on and on
On the flip side, its sequel is the Blues version of “Hellzapoppin'” — a nearly unwatchable collage of moving pieces you can’t take your eyes off because of a few select parts: here, it’s a chili-stew-collection of the biggest names in Blues and Soul still around in the 90s.
♫ “Woke up this mornin’, my girl done ate all my Pop Tarts,
Missed the school bus, my brother makes me smell his –OOOOOH” ♪
In this movie, Jonny Lang looks to be 12 years old; his mom must have signed a permission slip so he could skip school for his big song. Most scenes are simply excuses to jam every possible Blues artist on screen, and that’s a-okay with me. For example, how many famous people can you name in this clip?
I’m not quoting this movie — just watch for the music!” – Me
Martin Scorsese presents The Blues (2003)
Each of the seven episodes explores a different stage in the development of the blues.
Watch for: Titanic-loads of music and history; classic videos in “Warming by the Devil’s Fire”
Okay, I have to include ONE documentary, of sorts. It’s seven films, by seven directors, each different from one another. Some focus more on fictional story-telling, some on interviews, and some on chasing down Blues history, so you can pick based on your mood:
- Feel Like Going Home traces the roots of Delta blues
- The Soul of a Man explores the careers of important Blues men Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and J. B. Lenoir
- The Road To Memphis follows musicians from the famous Beale Street area, including B. B. King and Bobby Rush
- Warming by the Devil’s Fire imagines a story around a young boy, then packs it with performances by LEGENDS like Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis, Ida Cox, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Dinah Washington, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and more. Damn!
- Godfathers and Sons dives into Chess Records [ see Cadillac Records below ], plus blending the Blues with modern Black music like Hip Hop
- Red, White and Blues checks out Great Britain’s Blues culture
- Piano Blues hits up big-name pianists like Dr. John, Ray Charles, Jay McShann, and Pinetop Perkins
The blues are the roots; everything else is the fruits.” – Willie Dixon
Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
‘Cause mo better makes it mo better.
Watch for: a classic “Mo’ Better Blues” performed by Branford Marsalis Quartet and Terence Blanchard; the 90s color schemes; Gang Starr
Let’s tackle the elephant in the room first: yes, the tunes could be called Jazz with a Blue tinge. Maybe that’s not your thing, but try not feeling blue listening to these tunes downright ripe with emotion:
This movie’s got Denzel Washington. In it, he plays the character of Denzel Washington. This is not a complaint; it’s the reason I — and millions of others — watch his films. He also, incidentally, plays trumpet. The story revolves around his obsession with his music putting the rest of his life in shambles …or is his downward spiral an important part of making great music??
“I call this song, “Please Stay The Night. No, Really, Please“.”
But the jazz, you know if we had to depend upon black people to eat, we would starve to death. I mean, you’ve been out there, you’re on the bandstand, you look out into the audience, what do you see? You see Japanese, you see, you see West Germans, you see, you know, Slabobic, anything except our people – it makes no sense. It incenses me that our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture, this is our music, man.”
Cadillac Records (2008)
Rise of the classic Chess Records label and its recording artists, including musical legends Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Etta James.
Watch for: putting a personality behind the big names you might be familiar with in Blues music; Beyonce’s “At Last” version
Don’t come for a history lesson (even Wikipedia looks like a “trustworthy source” next to the artistic licenses taken here) but do come for the hordes of key Blues figures woven throughout this tale of a record label’s struggles during the turbulent 1950s — and more so — struggling with the bigger-than-life personalities of the musicians. Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and others are depicted in the youth of their careers, by actors deftly bringing this time in their lives to….well, life. Just don’t mistake the movie for reality, and enjoy!
When you sing like Etta, you can draw your
eyebrows any damn way you want
Oh, the movie is called “Cadillac Records” because the record label gives musicians a Cadillac car every time they release a big hit. Subtle.
You’re singin’ the Blues…you don’t have to live ’em.” – Leonard Chess
“What do you know, white boy?” – Etta James
Got one you’d put on this list? Add it in the comments!
Originally written by me for Sitting at the foot of The Blues, an excellent Blues Blog from my friend Tracy you should also read!