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Eastwood, Scorsese get ‘The Blues’

Directors trace roots of this musical genre in PBS series
/ Source: The Associated Press

What would lure a high-flying filmmaker like Clint Eastwood into making a documentary for PBS? The blues, nothing but the blues.

Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and five more directors offer their visions of the great American art form in “The Blues.”

The blues-lovers’ extravaganza opens with “Feel Like Going Home,” in which Scorsese tracks the music’s origins from Africa to the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta, and concludes with Eastwood’s “Piano Blues.”

In between are “The Soul of a Man” by Wim Wenders; “The Road to Memphis” by Richard Pearce; “Warming by the Devil’s Fire” by Charles Burnett; “Godfathers and Son” by Marc Levin and “Red, White and Blues” by Mike Figgis.

Scorsese, the impetus behind the series, is inspired by music in general and the blues in particular.

“It’s sort of scored my life in a way, and I think it’s pretty evident in the movies I make,” he told a news conference in July.

As with documentaries he’s made about the movies, Scorsese (“Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas,” “Gangs of New York”) said, “The Blues” is a means of honoring the music’s power, its contribution to society and “how it all began.”

As bluesman Willie Dixon famously put it: “The blues is the roots. Everything else is the fruits.” Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and B.B. King are among the artists featured in “The Blues” and its companion book, Web site and CD.

The directors approached for the film shared certain qualifications, including documentary experience and, most importantly, love of the blues.

“This is one of those projects that there’s no reason to do unless you’re passionate about the subject,” executive producer Margaret Bodde, a longtime Scorsese collaborator, said from New York.

Eastwood is a musician who has scored his own movies. A young Figgis was in a 1960s blues band that included future Roxy Music star Bryan Ferry as lead singer.

The project’s roots can be found in Scorsese’s documentary “Nothing But the Blues,” which intercut a 1995 blues concert by Eric Clapton with archival blues footage.

“We felt we had just scratched the surface, there was so much rich history there,” said Bodde. Rather than an encyclopedic approach, they envisioned taking on the blues as “artists would look at something, from an emotional and an impressionistic standpoint.”

The filmmakers divided the subject up, in broad strokes, by geography and era and by their own preferences. Eastwood came aboard after specifying his desire to focus on piano blues, a part of his life since hearing his mother’s Fats Waller records.

“We obviously didn’t want seven filmmakers each making a film about Robert Johnson,” said series producer Alex Gibney. “I think there was a rough sense of flow ... but the key thing was that once a director had his own territory, he had complete freedom within that territory to operate.”

Burnett (“The Wedding,” “Selma, Lord, Selma”) was the first filmmaker approached.

“It was kind of daunting in a way. It’s a great project and you really want to do it, but then reality sets in: ’Oh, my God, how are we going to do it?”’ said Burnett, whose focus was on the post-Civil War period to the early 1900s and includes the rise of blueswomen.

“What I wanted to do was take the point of view of a blues player — how he would treat it if asked to do a film about the blues?” he said. “He would play with it like blues players do the music, and talk about it from a personal standpoint.”

Born in Vicksburg, Miss., and raised in Los Angeles, Burnett saw firsthand how the honest, earthy style of music was both embraced and condemned by the black community.

“It was the devil’s music, and there were a lot of things in it that kids shouldn’t hear or decent people shouldn’t hear or do,” he said. “There was a lot of tension.”

It was Europe’s embrace that helped keep the music alive when Americans snubbed it for the emerging, blues-based sounds of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s, Bodde said. Rare footage was located for the film in the archives of British and German television.

For each director involved with “The Blues,” the goal was a “vibrant interplay between past and present. We didn’t want to make films about wonderful music that happened in the past and is gone,” she said.

Contemporary performers influenced by the blues tradition are featured, including Jeff Beck, Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams.

Familiarity with the blues isn’t necessary to enjoy the series. “The only thing it does require is that you’re interested and you like music and you’re moved by music in some way,” Bodde said.

Filmmaker Burnett hopes viewers appreciate the true value of what early blues artists created.

“They lived in eras when life was harsh. Yet, although most were uneducated, they produced this wonderful music that illuminated the human experience and how one can survive.”