Like dropping in on old friends, Daniel Cross' I Am the Blues casually celebrates iconic blues musicians. No authoritarian narration and no formal interviews intrude into this leisurely, perfect visit with elderly champions of the blues. Even into their eighties, these men and women express their experiences and emotions lyrically and musically. 

The location matters: from Bentonia, Como, Tutwiler and Mount Bayou, Mississippi, to Lafayette, Louisiana, plus the many juke joints on the Chitlin' Circuit throughout the Delta and Bayou region. Acknowledging this, writer/director Cross begins his salute with cinematographer John Price's camera gliding smoothly through a swamp at water level. A brief voiceover comment describing the feeling of the blues segues into music playing over these introductory shots--a tantalizing invitation to a delightful journey.

Next, and appropriately, at the Blue Front Café in Bentonia, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes explains that he ran his café for forty-three years. We'll also visit the Pool Monkey Lounge, outdoor barbecues, living rooms, churches, and more as individuals calmly and quietly describe the pervasive racism they faced; for example, the railroad tracks that literally divided white from black communities and the curtain that kept the blues band out of sight in one performance so the white audience could enjoy the music but not have to look at the black faces.

But the heart of this wonderful film is just hanging out on the porch with and listening to blues legends play and sing. And can they make music (!!) with guitars, harmonicas, pianos and heavenly voices! They include Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, Bobby Rush, RL Boyce, Lazy Lester, Lil' Buck Sinegal, Henry Gray, and Carol Fran. Barbara Lynn plays her left-hand bass and sings. Little Freddie King -- 81 years old, 326 records, 60 years playing--describes making his first guitar out of a cigar box and a picket fence plank. One asserts, "This guitar's a bible!" and we understand.

The presentation feels effortless, a tribute to Ryan Mullins editing and Cross' design. The only thing wrong with I Am the Blues is that you want more of everything. I Am the Blues screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, July 7, through Tuesday, July 11 at 8:00 p.m. 

 

Writer/director John Scheinfeld's Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary takes a conventional approach to a decidedly unconventional talent. What I mean by that is that in primarily chronological order, the film describes the pivotal moments in Coltrane's life, piling on extravagant praise from a notable group. Remarkably, time after time, Coltrane's music proves he warrants the effusive adulation. 

That high regard, presented in on-camera interviews, comes from a wide range of knowledgeable musicians, including Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath and Benny Colson, saxophonists who played with Coltrane and understand his musical genius. Philosopher Dr. Cornel West, Common, Coltrane quartet pianist McCoy Tyner, Doors drummer John Densmore, and Wynton Marsalis add context as does Carlos Santana, who says, "Some people play blues. Some people play jazz. He played life."

And Trane's life wasn't always easy. Born in 1926 in a racist North Carolina, he grew up sustained early and late by his Methodist roots and the inspiration the church provided him. Several of Coltrane's children remember him fondly; for example, his walking home in snow from a gig so he could buy his stepdaughter needed shoes the next day. He stumbled early on, drank too much, got hooked on heroin and then quit cold turkey because Miles Davis fired him for his drug use and Coltrane wanted back in. He knew, as he wrote in letters read by Denzel Washington, interspersed throughout the film, "Miles made me want to be a much better musician." 

Some lovely animation, superb integration of archival photographs and film footage, plus impeccable editing by Peter S. Lynch II keep Chasing Trane informative and engaging. The jewel here is, of course, Coltrane's music, his compositions and his playing that sax. Past President Bill Clinton sums it up best, "You could hear just four notes and you know it's John Coltrane playing." It's heaven to listen. 

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary is at Landmark's Tivoli Theatre and screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, July 14 through Tuesday, July 18 at 8:00 each evening. 

 

 

The fascinating, historical documentary Letters from Baghdad profiles Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, a remarkable woman by any standards. Traveling in Arabia and the Middle East at the end of the nineteenth century, into the first two decades of the twentieth century, Bell participated in and constructively influenced monumental events from mapmaking to archeology, political decisions to vivid travelogues.

A pioneering and pivotal woman, Bell immersed herself in the tribal cultures, learned to speak Arabic and Persian, along with her French, German, Italian and Turkish fluency, added to her native English. An accomplished mountain climber, Bell fell in love with the desert, her correspondence of over 1600 letters detailing perceptive observations. As the chief British official in Iraq, she advised Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, and Sir Percy Cox as they decided Iraqi borders of the necessity of preserving a Sunni Mosul, despite Sunnis' minority status. She recognized "we've made an immense failure here," in establishing a British rule with Arab advisors instead Arab rule with British advisors, as had been promised. 

Directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl bring the people, the period and the formal and informal places to dazzling life through never-before-seen archival footage, sometimes lightly tinted. Moreover, as opening titles state, Bell's story is "told in her own words and those of her contemporaries, taken entirely from private letters, secret communiques and other primary sources." Bell's friends, confidants, and British government officials speak their thoughts directly to the camera, actors portraying real-life individuals. That and the choice of black-and-white footage that complements early twentieth century film create a strong sense of time traveling with Bell to Baghdad, Tehran, Cairo, and other locales.  

Always in voiceover, never seen on camera, Tilda Swinton reads Bell's illuminating letters, wonderfully inflecting her interpretation of Bell's thoughts and feelings. Bell's insights into the Arab world she embraced and loved remain as insightful and relevant today, a century later. In English with some Arabic with English subtitles. Letters from Baghdad is showing exclusively at Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

 

Director Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled begins as the camera cranes down through the trees, peering into Farnsworth Seminary, an isolated Virginia girls finishing school estate. The feeling of voyeuristic observation dominates succeeding events, creating a palpably tense ambiance. It's 1864, three years into the Civil War, with a headmistress and six charges carrying on with lessons and tending the garden.

Then one of the younger girls, Amy, stumbles upon wounded Union Corporal John McBurney, an Irish immigrant mercenary. Devious and clever, McBurney carefully watches and manipulates the women, flattering them, teasing out suppressed sexuality, and encouraging competition for his attention and affection. Tension builds, and it's no surprise to note that events will take a nasty turn.

A remake of director Don Siegel's 1971 The Beguiled with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, Coppola adapted Thomas Cullinan's novel emphasizing the women's perspective. That's a welcome shift, but to label all that ensues as progressive is misguided since McBurney's arrival thoroughly disrupts the group's equilibrium. To their credit, the headmistress and her charges do prove impressively resourceful.

The Beguiled is a beautiful film of sensuous beauty, with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd evoking a hallucinatory spell. The white dresses, literal and metaphoric heat, and repressed emotions strongly suggest associations with Peter Weir's sublime 1975 Picnic at Hanging Rock. The isolated location, the sounds of war in the distance, and the significant impact of small gestures and glances—all these details build through Sarah Flack's masterful editing to convey a world shattered by McBurney's intrusion. 

Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning deliver superb performances, as does Colin Farrell as McBurney, alternating guile with anger. All the women interact with reserve that telegraphs desire barely held in check. Sofia Coppola won the Best Director Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, only the second woman ever to do so. The Beguiled is showing at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli Cinemas and other local cinemas. Check listings for the latest places and showtimes.

 

Even those of us who read obituaries religiously may not have noticed that only the lead obit. in The New York Times includes the verb "dies" in the headline. This titbit and so many others make Obit. an excellent documentary. Like the topic, it is more about life than death.

Director Vanessa Gould exploits the film form of the documentary to study the written form of the obituary, not to be confused with the paid funeral notice. It's not enough to be a good person to have a Times obituary: that person must be newsworthy, too. Gould follows the work of the writers on the death desk at The New York Times, including Bruce Weber, William McDonald, and Margalit Fox. Threaded throughout the film, Gould follows Weber as he researches the life of the political aide who chose the make-up and the podium for the Kennedy/Nixon debates. The clock in the lower right hand corner tracks the deadline, the tension, the stress of getting the story right and getting it good. Weber struggles with the lede (anecdotal or the five Ws?) and defends his position that the aide deserves an obituary at the daily editorial meeting, followed, after approval, by the photographers' meeting.

Sometimes Gould records the writers reading their work, such beautiful syntax and passion, especially Fox's on an oarsman. Discussing their work, these writers are articulate: they've obviously thought about this job, its importance and responsibilities, its influence, and even its amusements.

Gould covers corrections and advances, the obituaries written largely before someone dies. Her documentary includes supportive films and stills of the subjects being described, including an impressive montage at the end. Obit. dives deep, into the morgue, into writers' and editors' hearts and minds, into the dead. Obit.'s world is fascinating indeed.

 

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