19 September 2011

Chicago Blues

Chicago Blues
United States - 1972
Director - Harley Cokliss
Rhapsody Films, 1991, VHS
Run Time - 50 minutes

There are a number of interesting things about this brief documentary beginning with the director. Cokliss has continued to work in film and has some noteworthy films to his name, however Chicago Blues is not listed among his credits. Nor is it listed among the credits for cinematographer Tak Fujimoto who has an even more impressive resume. Perhaps they're not proud of this film now that they've gone on to the big time. I can't understand why that would be the case though, Chicago Blues is a great piece of history.

Like many of the blues documentary and performance footage shot at the time it suffers a bit from the amateur anthropologist mentality of its makers. Upon 'discovering' Black culture through music in the 60's, white people seem genuinely surprised and practically impressed that there is a Black culture. In presenting the art, white filmmakers repeatedly decontextualized it, filming performers in artificial folksy or rural settings and surrounding them with curious white onlookers.

Chicago Blues is an exception to this trend namely because it doesn't present its subject matter as an exhibit. Icons Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy (all of whom recorded together in the early 60's) and lesser known bluesmen like Floyd Jones discuss the experiences that led to the creation of the Chicago Blues sound. In the years during and after World War II, large numbers of Blacks left the south to find work up north. As a hub of national commerce, Chicago proved to be one of the most promising destinations. For people born and raised in the south, and for the music they brought with them, the change proved to be utterly transformative. In fact, it is that experience which the film claims was the context for the creation of the Chicago sound. More than any other blues film or documentary that I've seen, Chicago Blues attempts (and mostly succeeds) in allowing the subjects, from the musicians to the city, to speak for themselves.


the-scandyfactory said...

Chicago has lost a several of important, some lesser known than others, figures in it's blues history very recently. This video looks really, really cool.

The Goodkind said...

It's a really awesome documentary and I'm glad I found it. Fortunately for serious fans of the Blues, Chicago or otherwise, I discovered that it appears to be available on DVD.