Brought together were more than 50 musicians representing decades of performing experience; as Dr. John, who plays piano in the concert's house band put it, "it's like they looked in the phone book under blues." There were originating artists such as B.B. King ("Sweet Sixteen") and Ruth Brown ("Mama He Treat Your Daughter Mean") performing songs they made famous as well as newcomers doing dazzling cover versions of classic tunes.
Being in company they respected understandably brought out the best in these performers. Everyone was emotionally involved in the music to such an extent they gave even cavernous Radio City the intimate atmosphere of a smoky club.
"Lightning in a Bottle's" filmmakers are gifted enough to make the most of what they were given. Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "King Arthur") brought confidence and passion to the directing, and top-drawer cinematographer Lisa Rinzler captures the immediacy of performance in a way that is better than the best seat in the house.
Loosely structured like a history of blues, "Lightning" intercut several kinds of material with the concert footage. There are straight interviews, vintage footage of venerable bluesmen such as Son House and Howlin' Wolf, glimpses of rehearsals and amusing backstage moments.
So we hear raconteur Solomon Burke talk about his time on "the neck bone circuit," one step down from the more celebrated chitlin circuit. We see Odetta chastising the house band for overshadowing Brown in a rehearsal. And we see a very nervous Macy Gray being talked through her "Hound Dog" rehearsal and then absolutely nailing the song in performance.
"Lightning" ends with an appearance by 80-year-old King, but its emotional high point involves Buddy Guy, who played guitar with Muddy Waters and passed on his knowledge to Jimi Hendrix.
After doing a wrenchingly emotional version of Hendrix's "Red House," Guy thinks he's through for the evening, but Angelique Kidjo somehow induces him to come back on stage to accompany her on "Voodoo Child." The ecstatic, exhausted look on his face as he plays takes us inside the blues in a way few performance films ever have.
'Lightning in a Bottle'
MPAA rating: PG-13
Times guidelines: Some adult subject matter
A Vulcan Productions presentation in association with Cappa Productions & Jigsaw Productions, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Antoine Fuqua. Producers Alex Gibney, Margaret Bodde, Jack Gulick. Executive producers Paul G. Allen, Jody Patton, Martin Scorsese. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler. Editors Bob Eisenhardt, Keith Salmon. Musical director Steve Jordan. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. In limited release.