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    Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King in Lightning in a Bottle. in Lightning in a Bottle
    Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King in "Lightning in a Bottle."

    Blues in a bottle

    "Lightning in a Bottle" is a concert film that writes the history, if not the obituary, of that deepest American music, the blues.


    It's hard to know whether to write a history of the blues or an obituary. The February 2003 Radio City concert documented in "Lightning in a Bottle" features a luminous cast of what one performer calls "the survivors" of the blues, and while they deserve every moment they get in the spotlight, one can only reflect on what this tribute, whether a birthday party or a wake, says about the state of this deepest American art form. "[At least] we're not at a funeral," sighs 1950s R&B favorite Ruth Brown. "That's the only place we ever see each other, so this is very special."

    Directed by: Antoine Fuqua.
    Produced by: Paul G. Allen, Margaret Bodde, Alex Gibney, Jack Gulick, Susan Motamed, Jody Patton, Martin Scorsese.
    Featuring: Gregg Allman, James Blood Ulmer, Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, Ruth Brown, Solomon Burke, Natalie Cole, Shemekia Copeland, Bill Cosby, Robert Cray, Chuck D., Dr. John, Honeyboy Edwards, John Fogerty, Macy Gray, Buddy Guy, John Hammond, India.Arie, David Johansen, Larry Johnson, AngŽlique Kidjo, B.B. King, Chris Thomas King, Alison Krauss, Lazy Lester, Keb' Mo', Odetta, Joe Perry, Bonnie Raitt, Vernon Reid, Mavis Staples, Hubert Sumlin, Steven Tyler, Jimmie Vaughan, Kim Wilson, Martin Scorsese.
    Cinematography: Lisa Rinzler.
    Edited by: Bob Eisenhardt, Keith Salmon.

    Related links: Official site
    Angelika Film Center 18 West Houston at Mercer St.

    Available from

     Lightning in a Bottle (soundtrack)

    I think of the blues as every American's musical birthright. Even if we don't know what it is, we have it in our blood. We know its cadence like our own heartbeat, and even those who don't know what the blues is feel its resonance when they hear it in a commercial or reincarnated as classic rock.

    But the blues has been abandoned by its children like an unloved old man in a state-run nursing home. The black audience began to defect decades ago, and today they're more likely to be listening to hip-hop and bland "American Idol" pop rather than old-fogey roots music. The rare black faces in the audience at this particular concert get the kind of obsessive attention from the camera that you usually only see at Republican conventions. And the white audience that embraced blues in the '60s is Bill Clinton's age, at a minimum; the momentum generated by Stevie Ray Vaughan in the '80s seems to have petered out like radicchio and the color mauve.

    This concert, dressing up the blues in its funeral-home best for one last bash at Radio City, seems like a well-deserved eulogy for this patrimonial art form. Why did it have to leave us so soon?

    Buddy Guy in Lightning in a Bottle. in Lightning in a Bottle  
    Buddy Guy in "Lightning in a Bottle."
    But if these are anything like your thoughts as the movie opens, there is a simple rebuttal — and that is the amazing voice and guitar of Buddy Guy. The whole pre-concert backstage fuss of arriving dignitaries is intercut with a performance that, despite being a kind of chopped-up opening-credits throwaway, is so sharp, so clear, so infused with the joy and anguish of living, that its sheer beauty envelops the soul. For the next two hours, you're going to know what it is to love the blues again.

    And there is a lot to love in this film, from Angelique Kidjo's modernized version of African roots music and Mavis Staples' distinctive rendition of the spiritual "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" to some quintessential Neville Brothers ("Big Chief") and two massive soul explosions from Solomon Burke. Is B.B. King in the house? Of course, B.B. King is in the house. Guy reappears to perform Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child," which is a strange turnabout because if Hendrix were alive today he'd be on stage doing a tribute to Buddy Guy instead of the other way around.

    But the highlights, to me, were from the oldest of the old-timers. Eighty-eight-year-old David "Honeyboy" Edwards does an acoustic Delta blues called "Gamblin' Man" that shows clear enough how one Mississippian with a guitar can start a musical revolution. And two sentimental favorites are the irrepressible Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown doing the all-time greatest guitar instrumental "Okie Dokie Stomp" and the great rhythm guitarist Hubert Sumlin coming off an illness to play Howlin' Wolf's down and dirty "Killing Floor."

      Solomon Burke in Lightning in a Bottle. in Lightning in a Bottle
      Solomon Burke in "Lightning in a Bottle."
    But the old-time geniuses of the music, as they themselves note throughout the film, are growing fewer by the year. So again we might ask, is the blues dying out? And that question does get an ambiguous answer in this film.

    Some of the music's younger practitioners get a chance to shine, and I've never heard them better. Robert Cray is as smooth and seductive as ever. Keb' Mo' channels the devil-owned soul of Robert Johnson very convincingly. And Shemekia Copeland, daughter of the late Johnny Copeland, who emerged as a precocious but slightly presumptuous teenager a few years ago, seems to have grown up into the real deal. The soul of the music couldn't be stronger in the performers.

    But the performers aren't the ones who get to decide whether the music lives or dies. The blues can be a living expression of the human condition for all time, or a fossilized relic, enjoyed occasionally in concert halls by an Ÿbersophisticated blueserati. It's up to us. "Lightning in a Bottle" is a great concert movie that can make us feel the blues's eternal power in our hearts if our hearts are open to it, but not enough by itself to turn around a music industry that churns out junk and a philistine public that demands it. Shemekia Copeland is no Britney Spears and Keb' Mo is no P.Diddy. In a better world, guess which of these would be the household names.

    OCTOBER 23, 2004

    Reader comments on Lightning in a Bottle:

  • "Lightning in a Bottle"   from Jennifer L. Batieste, May 3, 2006
  • [no subject]   from karen scudder, Feb 22, 2007
  • lightning in a bottle   from ron miller, Jul 18, 2007
  • This is a Great movie   from Don W., Sep 27, 2007
  • Awesome show   from James Jennings, Jan 30, 2009
  • [no subject]   from , Mar 6, 2011

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