A Double Feature Contrasting Two Guitar Innovators: John Fahey and Nels Cline


Guitar virtuosity is given twin billing courtesy of In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey and Approximately Nels Cline, two documentaries about inventive, innovative axmen. Writer-director James Cullingham’s 57-minute nonfiction portrait of John Fahey mixes traditional talking-head soundbites and archival footage with eclectic aesthetics (including animated line drawings and haunting environmental panoramas) to capture the iconoclastic spirit of its subject, who, beginning in the ’50s, blazed new musical trails through work—dubbed in a TV interview as “American Primitive”—that combined finger-picking melodies rooted in the Delta blues with more ominous, abstract dissonance. Through his own laconic remarks in old interviews, as well as comments from admirers and collaborators (including Pete Townshend), Fahey—who died in 2001 at age 61—is depicted as a unique explorer who was in constant search of his next sonic revelation. That makes him a kindred soul to Nels Cline, the avant-jazz performer and lead guitarist of Wilco, who comes across in Steven Okazaki’s 27-minute jamming-in-the-studio doc as a similarly adventurous artist, always pushing boundaries and investigating new sounds (folksy harmonies, chaotic distortion) through collaboration. Together, these two slight but engaging films present artistic creativity as an unpredictable, ever-flowing journey from one unconventional locale to another.