"Babe's and Ricky's Inn," Ramin Niami's new documentary on the legendary L.A. blues club, is a bit like the music that founder Mama Laura gathered up in her big, open-hearted embrace — an improvisational riff filled with weeping guitars, wailing harmonicas, pounding keyboards and sweat-soaked players rather than rigorous storytelling.
If you don't want to get up and move at some point during this film, go see a doctor.
Music in "Babe's and Ricky's" is righteous and raucous and easy to come by, but the story of Mama Laura is more elusive. And that is the frustration. Tantalizing tidbits surface in rambling conversations with a long line of artists who played on her stage. But a rich cultural portrait of a seminal place and the extraordinary person behind it never comes into sharp focus.
That's a pity, for her story is a remarkable one. At age 37, Laura Mae Gross got word that her husband had been stabbed and not long after, the young widow made a bold move to do what she loved. In 1957, Mama Laura, as she soon came to be called, opened Babe's and Ricky's Inn in South Central L.A. She named the club after her nephew and her son, respectively, and she spent the next 53 years nurturing the blues.
Nearly everyone who played the blues and spent time in L.A. — from B.B. King to Eric Clapton — turned up at her club at some point. But for emerging artists, it was their school, their home. The hungry ones she fed, the homeless she took in, and she always told them whether they were playing — or living — right or wrong. From the beginning, the club drew a racially diverse crowd.
There are great tales in the tumble of memories of Guitar Shorty, Deacon Jones, South Side Slim, Roosevelt "Chu Chu" Stringfellow and other hard-core blues players — many having nothing to do with Mama. Niami simply lets them talk. And they do. Their own beginnings — traded the trumpet for keyboard at 13, started playing at 3, got my first guitar from my daddy — and their personal struggles spill out alongside stories of Mama Laura.
Intercut is the music itself, the most dominate element in the film. The footage of the live performances at Babe's and Ricky's and other local clubs around town is even rawer than the sound, and not in a good way.
In the final frames, the director finally spends quality time with Mama Laura. She's bedridden but unbowed, and it's impossible not to wish Niami had gotten there sooner and stayed longer.