Review: ‘The Torch’ struggles in framing Buddy Guy’s mentoring of a young blues guitarist

Two guitarists perform in the documentary “The Torch.”
Quinn Sullivan, left, and Buddy Guy in the documentary “The Torch.”
(Chuck Lanza / IFC Films)
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That Buddy Guy, now 85, lives for the blues is an understatement, as anyone familiar with his impulsive, magnetic way with chords, lyrics and stage presence can attest. That the Chicago guitar legend also needs to see the blues live on is at the center of “The Torch,” a documentary by Jim Farrell.

But to take the movie’s word for it, that knowledge — the influence of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, filtered into Guy’s freewheeling, before-its-time style — will live on in a pale, sweet-faced, blues-loving youngster named Quinn Sullivan from New Bedford, Mass. Sullivan was 8 when he was first invited onto a stage with Guy, who was duly impressed by the classic licks coming out of a prodigy with old-soul chops. The two have toured frequently together ever since, and Sullivan is now a recording artist in his own right.

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It’s a nice story of master and protégé, and in many scenes the bond between the irrepressible, humorous Guy and the quiet, observant Sullivan seems genuine. Of course, there’s plenty of music to enjoy too in moments of Guy tearing up the stage at his Chicago club. But Sullivan’s teenage growth, a key thread, isn’t nearly as interesting as listening to Guy tell stories about the hard road from Louisiana sharecropper’s son to recording with giants, and still having to hold down a job to make ends meet.


Plus, the contextual framing feels problematic when the majority of non-Guy screen time addressing the legacy of this African American-created art form, as personified in its oldest surviving standard bearer, is given to white interviewees. Nothing against these Guy worshippers’ commitment to the blues, but the dearth of Black voices in “The Torch” — as performers, experts or fans — seems ill considered, to say the least.

A new PBS “American Masters” documentary stars guitar legend Buddy Guy.

July 27, 2021

'The Torch'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

Playing: Starts March 28, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles