1992 Directed by Robert Mugge. Starring Robert Palmer, Dave A. Stewart.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 6, 1992
Deep Blues is a project that puts the word “document” back in the term documentary. It plunges deep into the Mississippi Delta, down Highway 61, to explore the world of the blues -- both the people who make the music and the culture that makes the people. Commissioned by Dave Stewart, formerly of the Eurythmics, the film is inspired by music journalist Robert Palmer's 1981 book of the same title. Stewart wanted to get an up-close listen to some of the Delta music that he so loved and, in the process, record a CD and make a film of some of these indigenous musicians. What the film records (as well as the CD, although sometimes in different versions) are the blues musicians known only in their local areas. It records the previously unrecorded, visits the back porches and barber shops and juke joints where the music is being played in its natural habitats, passed on between generations and shared with audiences of friends, families and locals. Palmer serves as our tour guide (Stewart disappears from the film fairly early on, having to continue on his own concert tour) and we could not want for a better host. His extensive knowledge and insight dwells not just on the facts and details of the music and its creators. Sure, he brims with pure historical information but his real gift is his nearly-anthropological commentary that ties this music into its Delta milieu and its African sources and its American spirit. In this he is aided by filmmaker Mugge, whose camera is invariably pointed in the right place, catching the little things, the inflections and reactions, a sort of filmmaking call and response. Mugge proved a good choice for this project, an experienced music documentarian having made a number of films on such offbeat figures as Sun Ra, Ruben Blades and Al Green. Deep Blues begins in Memphis on legendary Beale Street and moves from that now-cleansed and homogenized pseudo-Disney World set to the towns of Holly Springs, Greenville, Clarksdale and Betonia. We witness performances by Booker T. Laury, R.L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough, Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes and the Playboys, Big Jake Johnson, Jack Owens Bud Spires and Lonnie Pitchford. Deep Blues has the soul of an archivist, usually recording performances at length. Yet while that makes for great and often mesmerizing history, it does not necessarily make for captivating cinema. The guided tour aspects of the movie are so good and so original that the extended performance footage almost interrupts that dynamic. Not that I regret a single second of the music witnessed here (and for any blues lover this movie is required viewing), but I can't shake the nagging frustration that with a 91-minute movie, one can only capture a mere smattering of archival material. Certainly, some archives are better than none, yet 91 minutes could be enough time to present a rich sociological embroidery of context and appreciation. Still, any way you play it, it's enough time to leave you wanting it “all night long.” (See related story on p.22)