Here’s the rare lionizing-a-musician doc that strikes a smart balance between vintage footage, talking-head testimonials, and contemporary tribute performances.
Despite the appearance of Peter Yarrow, Bob Weir, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, Harlem Street Singer keeps its emphasis on its subject’s fingers, frets, soul, and story.
Blind street singer Reverend Gary Davis’s acoustic blues and gospel guitar heroics — especially his inimitable, percussive, self-taught technique — are illuminated by way of smart testimony, but the many clips of him in action are so marvelous that this would be a first-rate doc subject even without all these admiring white people turning up to toast him.
Simeon Hutner and Trevor Laurence’s doc offers a chance to revel in Davis’s music and presence, letting the long-gone Davis (he died in ’72) talk and play and dazzle us, in casual archival footage and from the stages at the biggest ’60s folk festivals. Harlem Street Singer is an upbeat bop through Davis’s life, one that could dig deeper — the poverty of his youth in the Carolinas at the turn of the last century is well established, but there’s too little about living blind, black, and broke in segregated America.
Still, the film’s persuasive when it argues that his adoption by the Village folk scene had a concrete material payoff: Davis bought his first house with royalty checks after Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded his version of “Samson and Delilah.” His version crushes theirs, of course — and dig the way he plumps those fat, chord-rich notes from his guitar with just one hand!