Director Wim Wenders focuses his segment on three of his heroes.
By STEVE HOCHMAN
LA Times Calendar, Feb.17. 2002
Bonnie Raitt and her band are on stage at the Knitting
Factory club in Hollywood, performing "Round and Round," a song
originated by late blues musician J.B. Lenoir.
"Round and round and up and down ... round and round and tip and
down," they sing in a subdued, ghostly manner, ultimately fading
into eerie silence.
There was little audience response, because there was
little audience; only a few people were in the room. But perched on a
ladder in front of the stage, a man in black slacks, white shirt and glasses
with thick black rims speaks up.
"Can't I have a microphone too?" he asks,
a boyish grin on his face. The man who wants to sing along is Wim Wenders,
the prolific German director of such richly emotional and intellectually
challenging films as "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire"
as well as the 1998 Oscar-nominated documentary "Buena Vista Social
Club," which followed veteran Cuban musicians to newfound fame.
Up on the ladder, digital video camera in hand rather
than microphone, Wenders is shooting the performance in his role as one
of six directors making segments of "The Blues," the ambitious
series scheduled for airing on PBS in fall 2003.
For his film, which also includes location shooting
in Mississippi, Wenders is focusing on three of his personal blues heroes:
the relatively obscure '50s Chicago figure Lenoir; Delta blues pioneer
Skip James, who disavowed the music in the early '30s and turned to preaching,
only to be rediscovered by blues researchers in 1964; and '20s and '30s
gruffvoiced gospel-blue-, titan Blind Willie Johnson.
That Wenders is having trouble keeping the line between
his task as a documentarian and his passion as a fan is fine by series
producer Alex Gibney, pleased as he watches the day's sessions.
"These [the directors] are people who were musicians
themselves or have a deep affinity for music," Gibney says. "Go
to Wim's Web site and you'll see: He's about music." Wenders'films
have often had a strong musical element, whether Ry Cooder's haunting,
influential score for "Paris, Texas" or the contributions of
such regular collaborators as U2 and Lou Reed to distinctive soundtracks
accenting the melancholy but restless spirits inhabiting the stories.
That passion is clear a few minutes later. While the
stage is being reset for a Raitt solo performance of James' spooky "Devil
Got My Woman," Wenders stands with her on the club floor, begging
for stories about James, whom Raitt as a 19-year-old performer befriended
in the year before his 1969 death.
"I never got to hear him play," says Raitt,
trying to discount the value of any anecdotes she might have. "He
was too sick by the time I met him, But the first time I ever played his
songs, I was playing them to him in his bedroom when he had stomach cancer."
This direct connection to the source of music that's
inspired him since his youth is why he jumped right in when executive
producer Martin Scorsese invited him into the project two years ago, bringing
in Wenders' Road Movies company as European CO-production partner. "He
didn't have to twist my arm," Wenders, 55, said. "I love the
blues. I have a huge collection of blues records and CDs."
The first authentic blues in the collection date to
Wenders' days in late-'60s Germany, when he heard English blues guru John
Mayall's "The Death of J.B. Lenoir."
"I bought John Mayall's 'Crusade' album when it
came out, in 1968, 1 think," says the director. "I heard his
tribute to J.B. Lenoir and the immediacy of it, the honesty of his complaint
and the truth and beauty of that song made me go out immediately and try
to find a record by that man himself. It wasn't easy. J.B. was pretty
obsolete by then."
He was able to track down one album, "Alabama Blues,"
which showcased the Southern-born musician in an acoustic country blues
setting with just his own guitar and a drummer for accompaniment rather
than the raw-edged electric style he became best known for in the'50s
"I was mesmerized," Wenders says. "I'd
never heard anything remotely like it, neither in terms of his lyrics-some
of them with outspoken political messages, some deeply religious songs-nor
his sometimes desperate, sometimes ironic yet always confident tone."
A similar epiphany struck in the late '70s, when clerks in a San Francisco
record store persuaded him to buy an album by James, whose haunted tone
in such landmark songs as 'Hard Time Killing Floor" and "I'm
So Glad" influenced icons from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton.
"The effect was the same as with J.B.," he
says. "I couldn't believe that this man wasn't known among my friends,
that nobody ever heard of him.... When I first heard his voice, I was
just deeply moved." And it happened again nearly a decade later with
the music of Blind Willie Johnson.
"Together with Ry Cooder, we picked Blind Willie's
incredible rendition of 'Dark Was the Night' as the leitmotif for the
score of 'Paris, Texas,"' he says.
These are not only the wellsprings of the director's
relationship with blues music but the starting points for his film in
progress. The project is described as "part pilgrimage" because,
along with historical footage, reenactments and current artists including
Raitt, Los Lobos, Lou Reed and Lucinda Williams bringing the music to
life, it involves Wenders on a quest to understand the driving forces
behind the mystical music.
"To tell you the truth, I am not sure yet how my
film will bring out that struggle between the sacred and the profane,"
Wenders says."The gap between the very down-to-earth themes of the
blueswomen, trouble, poverty, oppression, drinking and so on - and its
religious applications, expressed very often with entirely the same means,
is a conflict and struggle that many musicians dealt with on an everyday
Wenders' quest gets approval from Raitt, a founder of
the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and a fierce fighter to recover blues
musicians' long-denied performance and songwriting royalties as well as
to protect their legacies.
"When Wim and I first met today, he was talking
about old footage he's uncovered, people he's interviewed, " she
says after her performances for the film. "I could tell from that
there was a good reason he had picked these important but often underground
bluesmen [as his subjects]. I could tell he had a soulful approach."
After a break at the Knitting Factory, Wenders is wielding
his hand-held digital camera again, this time on stage as Los Lobos plays
a rough, rollicking rendition of Lenoir's "Voodoo Music." He's
rushing from musician to musician, getting close-ups of expressive faces,
fingers on guitar fret boards, feet tapping the rhythm. It's easy to see
he's having the time of his life, even if he doesn't get to sing along.
Later, he says, "I could have gone on filming them for days. "
Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar.
For more on Wim's contribution to 'the BLUES' go to:
News Reel Oct. 2001
Reel Mar. 2002
back to April 2002 News Reel