In the opening minutes of this elating documentary, Martin Scorsese, executive producer of Lightning in a Bottle, takes the stage at New York's Radio City Music Hall to introduce an all-star concert on Feb. 7, 2003, as an attempt to tell the 100-year history of the blues. The film, which opens today at the Charles, may not be in the same league as the movie of The Band's farewell concert, The Last Waltz (1978), which Scorsese directed. But it's a passionate and magnetic celebration.
Out of a six-hour marathon, director Antoine Fuqua has carved a 109-minute film that sizzles with bold fusions and contrasts. The history may get wispy, the backstage interviews and rehearsal footage may leave you wanting more, but the film never loses touch with the bedrock of blues, social and sexual upheaval, while tracing its influence on every strain of American music. The house band has The Band's Levon Helm and New Orleans jazzman Dr. John; featured artists include gospel great Mavis Staples, blues master B.B. King, soul deity Solomon Burke and such odd, invigorating choices as bluegrass star Alison Krauss, who fiddles beautifully as James "Blood" Ulmer hauntingly moans "Sittin' On Top of the World."
The performances illuminate how a musical impulse started in Africa and planted in the Mississippi Delta still blooms in diverse ways in the American South, North, East and West. (Most extreme example: Chuck D turns John Lee Hooker's dead-on erotic "Boom Boom Boom Boom" into an anti-war rap, "[No] Boom Boom.")
Starting with Angelique Kidjo belting out a chant from Togo and climaxing with King, Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt on a marrow-stirring "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss," this movie is a kicking variety show as well as a thrilling exploration of musical roots. It pays homage to the founding fathers and mothers of blues in interviews and clips; it sketches the human chronicle behind the music with slides of century-old or decades-old struggles and atrocities.
Mostly, it glories in the blues' living legacy. And the movie is all the stronger for mixing in all sorts of singers and musicians. When Natalie Cole stomps through "St. Louis Blues," it's a gas to sense her getting into the vampiness of the number.
Lightning in a Bottle has breadth, both in its multitude of perspectives and its spectrum of performances. Ruth Brown dubs the blues a male-dominated form because it enables a man to sing the tears he'd be ashamed to shed. But Dr. John hails the tradition of female blues stars like the contemporary Shemekia Copeland pouncing on words and music with a traditional masculine ferocity.
The music and the movie gleefully cross racial, gender and genre boundaries; they derive as much heart from John Fogerty and his distinct twanging yowl on "Midnight Special" as they do from the mountainous Burke sitting in a throne and bringing down the Music Hall.
Burke puts over a pounding rendering of "Down in the Valley" that he once wailed continuously at a Ku Klux Klan gathering for 45 minutes, afraid of what would happen if his band stopped. With numbers like that, Lightning in a Bottle sets off an emotional sonic boom.
Lightning in a Bottle
Starring Solomon Burke, Odetta, Ruth Brown, B.B. King, Mavis Staples, John Fogerty, Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Time 109 minutes
Sun Score ***1/2