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'Lightning In a Bottle': The Blues, Uncorked

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page C05

It's never too early to teach your kids about the blues. The broken hearts. The booze. The Devil. (Okay, maybe kids 8 and up.) Not to mention the 100 years of life-affirming 12-bar beauty without which there'd be no jazz, no rock, no you name it. And "Lightning in a Bottle," a concert film slickly directed by "Training Day" helmer Antoine Fuqua and executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, is a very entertaining place to start the learning.

Filmed in February 2003 at New York's Radio City Music Hall, the rowdy, but never raunchy, spectacle features a who's who of world-wise bluesmen (and women) and newbie practitioners.

Learning the blues: B.B. King belts out a number in a scene from Antoine Fuqua's concert film. (Paul Brissman -- Sony Pictures Entertainment)

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There are such legends as B.B. King, Ruth Brown and Solomon Burke -- the last of whom kills with a cover of Bobby "Blue" Bland's 1962 hip-shaker "Turn On Your Love Light" while seated on a red velvet throne -- and such humble worshipers as Keb' Mo', India.Arie and loopy soulstress Macy Gray, whose hootchy-kootchy take on Big Mama Thornton's version of "Hound Dog" is a highlight.

Early on, a gaggle of cameramen are instructed to go for a "juke joint" feel and "get right up in their faces." And boy, do they, completely understanding Rule No. 1 when filming a concert movie: Make sure the popcorn-munchers feel like they're frontrow at the show. During guitar god Buddy Guy's prickly reading of Muddy Waters's 1948 lament "I Can't Be Satisfied," Fuqua shoots him from below, focusing on his thick but nimble hands and a big ol' diamond ring casting a wicked glare.

The director also snoops around backstage, capturing such priceless conversation as King and Burke complimenting each other's gaudy suits, and folk-blues diva Odetta lambasting the house band (which includes certified rock royalty Dr. John and Levon Helm) for drowning out Ruth Brown's vocals. In one of several pre-show interviews, Burke tells a story about how he once played "Down in the Valley" at a Ku Klux Klan rally.

Kicking off the evening, a typically nerdy, nervous Scorsese shuffles onstage and says the concert's focus is "to tell the story of this great music from its beginnings" -- that is, from Africa to the American South to Sweet Home Chicago and beyond. The movie manages to educate without losing steam. The song title, the year it was originally performed and the original artist are provided for each number, and a screen behind the stage gives a rolling history lesson of the genre's birth as an African American art form. Grainy footage of slaves toiling in fields gives power to Angelique Kidjo's chilling "Senie Zelie," and visual bios are provided for such long-gone gutbucket progenitors as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson.

The performances are always the focus of "Lightning in a Bottle," though, and not all work. Aerosmith hacks out a clunky cover of Slim Harpo's 1957 "I'm a King Bee," and Public Enemy's Chuck D fails to turn John Lee Hooker's 1962 "Boom Boom" into a rap-metal antiwar song.

But most acts thrill, including John Fogerty howling Leadbelly's "The Midnight Special"; Brown, Mavis Staples and Natalie Cole serenading a mugging Bill Cosby (sitting at a table onstage) with Rosetta Howard's "Men Are Like Streetcars"; and King's rousing show-closer of his own boisterous blues classic "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss."

The blues "allow a man to vent his feelings with pride," Ruth Brown explains at one point.

And how.

Lightning in a Bottle (106 minutes, at the Avalon) is rated PG-13 for brief profanity.

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