The books and movies about long-gone bluesman Robert Johnson have been coming fast and furious, hellhounds on his trail, particularly since Columbia’s Complete Recordings box set was released in 1990. Sixty years after his death, the few existing photos of him have become fetish objects, and his idiosyncratic guitar style and otherworldly howls and murmurs have translated into over 500,000 sets sold. Now comes Robert Mugge’s latest music documentary (a theatrical premiere within a week-long Mugge retrospective), and the trail doesn’t extend too much beyond Cleveland and a recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute.
For fans of Deep Blues, Mugge’s wonderful 1991 collaboration with the late critic Robert Palmer, this may come as a disappointment. The earlier film provided a sharp guided tour of the Mississippi Delta and its active blues musicians in juke joints and on back porches. This film features varied performers (including Johnson’s stepson, Robert Lockwood Jr., Henry Townsend, Joe Louis Walker, Billy Branch, Sonny Landreth, Peter Green, Rory Block, Chris Whitley, and Keb’ Mo’) with spirited versions of Johnson’s songs, but they have to share screen time with panel discussions and some self-important experts. The controversies surrounding Johnson’s life and legacy—the ever appealing Faustian tale of his soul selling, his death at age 27, his much-fought-over inheritance, etc.—are mentioned in passing, rather than plumbed for their ironies. And in place of the understated observations of Palmer or keynote speaker Peter Guralnick, we get as mediator Stephen C. LaVere, the man who tracked down Johnson’s half sister in 1973 and arranged for copyright protection for Johnson’s work. He now controls the commercial portion of the estate; the movie could not have been made without his cooperation. (At least LaVere doesn’t get to recite his liner notes for the 1990 box set, e.g., “When he was with his music, he became one with it and sang with such inspiration that his songs became fervent cries in the universal language of a broad overview.”)
In one of the few and much needed forays into Johnson’s stomping grounds, LaVere sits down with one of the legend’s childhood friends, Willie Coffee. Warmly recalling distant details, Coffee describes the galvanizing effect Johnson had when he walked into a club and the way the floors would sometimes buckle under the dancers when Johnson played. Some of this passion is captured in the performances here, and they make up for the filler.
Mugge has made 14 music films, and the series showcases four of his best: Deep Blues; 1982’s Black Wax, a reverent portrait of Gil-Scott Heron; 1984’s Gospel According to Al Green; and 1994’s Kingdom of Zydeco, in which the late Beau Jocque, whose accordion funk chugged along irresistibly, sparred with his onetime model Boozoo Chavis for the zydeco crown.