Jefferson Bailey (Simpson) has the blues. He can't play them, however, at least not without falling to pieces in the hot glare of the spotlight and an unimpressed crowd. Jefferson's a sweaty drunk, crippled by debt and his stage fright, passing out every night in a dirty hovel in Downtown Austin, where the film opens. (Local bluesman Gary Clark Jr. appears briefly, and one of his songs is on the soundtrack.) In short: Jefferson has nowhere to go but up – and eventually he gets there (note the title) – but, boy, does the getting there take its sweet time. The endless middle of this "who's gonna save your soul" melodrama takes place on the road as a mysterious, Zen-like stranger named Augy (Duncan) gives Jefferson a ride back to his hometown in Huntsville, Ala., where he's meant to collect some piddling inheritance from a dead relative. The scenery marks the best part of the drive; director Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City
) is very fond of filming the South at magic hour, and it's suitably picturesque. Blues aficionados will appreciate the film's many breaks from the narrative to feature a musical number at one of the smoky, bumpin' joints between Austin and Huntsville, and they probably won't mind the many wincing homilies that begin "the blues are like …." The more seasoned actors, like Duncan (who co-produced) and Tom Skerritt (as a club owner), buoy underscripted parts with their own natural magnetism. But as the film's central focal point, Simpson (who also co-wrote the script) is an awful zero – you could hardly imagine a more uncharismatic lead – and his embarrassing swings at big emotion in the climax prove the final blow to a film already hobbled by mawkishness.