The PBS culture-hero series "American Masters," a collection of works that should be on every feeling person's personal syllabus, has three new music-related films this month, featuring B.B. King, Fats Domino and Carole King.
The first two of these films are being promoted as Black History Month programming, though you can hardly look at American music without looking at black history (even when you're looking at Carole King, a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn whose songs were recorded by the Drifters, the Shirelles and Aretha Franklin).
Amazingly, Bono appears in only one of them.
"In 1925 on a hot sticky Wednesday in the middle of September the cries of a newborn baby rang out from a sharecropper's cabin over the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta; a boy was born that day that was going to make a difference," narrator Morgan Freeman says, a little messianically, at the top of Jon Brewer's moving "B.B. King: The Life of Riley" (Friday, Feb. 12). It is oddly short on performance for a man whose guitar is famously named — Lucille, if you somehow don't know — but you do get the idea.
Apart from his contributions to the blues, King, who died in May a few months shy of his 90th birthday, seems to have been the sweetest person who ever lived; a good boss who put a box meal under every seat in the tour bus; a sensitive soul who broke into tears when the white kids at the Fillmore Auditorium, a crowd new to him, gave him a standing ovation even before he'd played a note. (After his set, he says, "I cried back up at the stairway.") Humble to a fault, he attributes even his signature vibrato — recognizable at a note, says Eric Clapton, one of many famous testifiers here — to his inability to master slide guitar. His one failing appears to have been an attachment to touring that ended two marriages; one year he reportedly played 365 nights.
Eventually he met the pope, who knew his name, several presidents — the current one is seen trading lines with him on "Sweet Home Chicago" — and Bono.
Arriving on its subject's 88th birthday is Joe Lauro's "Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll" (Feb. 26). Where the King documentary has the shine of official support and willing participation, "Fats Domino" is a more ragged, ragtag affair; its modest budget shows. Although the elements of Domino's New Orleans vernacular piano style are laid out for the viewer, little sense of the player as person emerges — except when singing, he's barely heard from — leaving you with the impression of a smile, a bow tie and hands made for pounding out triplets. ("The very happy little rotund fellow," TV host Perry Como calls him, unfortunately but not inexcusably.)
But there are some great, energetic performance clips and some important people heard from, prime among them Dave Bartholomew, Domino's bandleader, producer and co-composer (and possibly the more interesting subject for a documentary). As for Domino's post-'50s, it's packed into a single sentence: "For the next 40 years he brought the big beat around the world, performing his hits at sold-out shows from New Orleans to Japan."
George Scott's "Carole King: Natural Woman" (Feb. 19) follows close on the songwriter-singer's Kennedy Center honors in December and the ongoing Broadway success of the Tony-winning "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical." She didn't set out to be a performer — "I liked the idea of writing songs so I would be recognized and respected by the people who sang them," said King, who with then-husband Gerry Goffin wrote a passel of hit songs, including "Up On the Roof," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "The Loco-motion" and "Chains," but also the Byrds' "Goin' Back," the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday" — even hipper, the Monkees' "Porpoise Song" — and Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."
Nevertheless, she wound up a star herself; the album "Tapestry," the exquisite expression of her chamomile-and-cats period, has sold 25 million copies worldwide since 1971. Scott's polished film takes you from the Brill Building to Laurel Canyon to the rural Idaho years, with plenty of performance footage and King, who has grown even more vibrant with age, a thoughtful guide throughout.
'B.B. King: The Life of Riley'
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and violence)
'Carole King: Natural Woman'
When: 9 p.m. Feb. 19
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
'Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll'
When: 10 p.m. Feb. 26