Movie review: 'Lightning in a Bottle'

EntertainmentMusic IndustryMusical TheaterTheaterMoviesBuddy GuyB.B. King

3½ stars (out of 4)

The blues, subject of the rousing new musical movie "Lightning in a Bottle," has always been a soul-searing public demonstration of private sorrow, raw anguish and sometimes dark humor. It's the American music of commiseration, and though pioneer Robert Johnson played and sang "Love in Vain" in near obscurity (while the Rolling Stones did it for the multitudes), it's always the intimacy of the blues that grabs or shakes you.

We all feel at least some of the emotions the blues talks about; we just can't express or exorcise them as well or powerfully as Johnson, the Stones, Muddy Waters or the musicians we see live here, including B.B. King, Shemekia Copeland, Bonnie Raitt and Buddy Guy.

No one who loves the blues should miss "Lightning in a Bottle." Director Antoine Fuqua's pulsing, pounding visual and aural record of last year's "Salute to the Blues" concert at Radio City Music Hall is entertaining, exalting educational, uplifting—and a total blast.

"Lightning" does what any great concert film on popular (or populist) music should. It erases the barriers between the film audience and the live event, and also puts that event into a larger, more resonant contrast. Watching it, we not only hear the blues—performed by a magnificent ensemble of experts and artists—we see where the blues came from: from Africa, from the slave lands of the old American South and from the black ghettos of the big cities, notably Chicago.

That backgrounding makes it more exciting, ultimately, when we watch and listen to the wonderful performances by this film's company of experts and artists. These include some of the best musicians around who've either specialized in the blues (like King, Guy, David "Honeyboy" Edwards or Howlin' Wolf's guitarist Hubert Sumlin); been deeply influenced by it (Odetta, Solomon Burke, The Neville Brothers or Ruth Brown); or simply loved it, used it and borrowed freely from it, (Raitt, Natalie Cole, John Fogerty, David Johansen or Aerosmith's Steve Tyler and Joe Perry).

Finally, there are younger artists who've either embraced the blues, like Copeland (daughter of blues great Johnny Copeland), or enthusiastically visited it, like India.Arie and Macy Gray. It's especially moving to hear this younger set replicating or altering the feeling and style—though, on this stage, ultimately, age like race doesn't matter. Everyone is in their prime.

"Lightning in a Bottle," a movie which, like all the best blues, makes good times out of bad times, makes smiles out of hurt, makes tears taste like honey. In the film's 106 minutes, more than three dozen star musicians—and quite a few legends—share the stage, the licks and a fantastic house band which includes music director Steve Jordan (and occasionally Levon Helm) on drums, Dr. John on piano, Willie Weeks on bass and Danny Kortchmar on guitar.

There are too many high points to list, though a few are worth mentioning: Buddy Guy tearing up old guitar colleague Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child," Natalie Cole drawling and sashaying her way through "St. Louis Blues," Mavis Staples growling and purring Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See that My Grave is Kept Clean," Copeland setting a torch to Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold On Me" and B.B. King and his red Gibson guitar Lucille closing down the show with his own honey-dripping "Sweet Sixteen."

One of the most heartening things here, by the way, is the way the concert and movie totally integrate the blues—with black and white musicians sharing the stage constantly and lovingly together, before a black and white audience. That's what great music—or any kind of great ensemble art—should do: create a mutual admiration society and unite kindred spirits. Everyone here bows to that power. And even if there are a few blues people you'd like to see on the stage, the producers didn't miss many. Solomon Burke explains pithily what draws them together: "We all love the blues and none of us are getting paid!" (It was a benefit concert for the Blues Music Foundation's music education programs.)

"Lightning in a Bottle" was directed with real fire and compassion by Fuqua ("Training Day"), who both enhances and celebrates the music and the artists—as Martin Scorsese did, for example, in "The Last Waltz," with the band, Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters. Scorsese is the executive producer here (as well as the first emcee) and this film links beautifully with his epochal "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues" multiple film and CD project.

It also beautifully recalls the roots of the blues, the simple power of Robert Johnson wailing "Crossroads." A crossroads—a wonderful one—is what this movie gives us.

"Lightning in a bottle'

Directed by Antoine Fuqua; photographed by Lisa Rinzler; edited by Bob Eisenhardt, Keith Salmon; musical director Steve Jordan; produced by Alex Gibney, Jack Gulick, Margaret Bodde. With Ruth Brown, Solomon Burke, Natalie Cole, Shemekia Copeland, Robert Cray, Chuck D. and the Fine Arts Militia, Dr. John, John Fogerty, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Danny Kortchmar, The Neville Brothers, Odetta, Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, James Blood Ulmer. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:46. MPAA rating: PG-13 (brief strong language).

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentMusic IndustryMusical TheaterTheaterMoviesBuddy GuyB.B. King
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