Lightning in a Bottle (documentary)

Like all concert films, “Lightning in a Bottle” is only as good as the viewer’s perception of the subject matter. If you don’t care for blues music, the film will almost certainly hold no appeal for you. If you dig the blues, or are passionate about music in general and can thus appreciate musicians performing even genres that are not your first choice, the movie will be like Christmas.

In 2003, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the advent of blues music, some 50 great blues singers and musicians were assembled for a benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall. Everyone was there; as the great blues pianist Dr. John puts it, “It looks like they looked in the yellow pages under ‘Blues.'” The film is that concert, with occasional glimpses of rehearsals and backstage conversations.

Martin Scorsese, who introduces the show and executive-produced the film, says they wanted to tell the story of the blues, and the movie, directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “King Arthur”), does just that. The songs were carefully chosen by musical director Steve Jordan to highlight all the movements and sub-genres of the blues, with the younger artists assigned to perform them when the originators are no longer with us. Hence, new-comers like Keb’ Mo’ and India.Arie aren’t there to showcase their own music; instead, they accept their assignments to sing specific tunes that fit within Jordan’s vision.

The effect is remarkable. Interspersed with the songs is footage of early-20th-century musicians talking about their music and their lives, and we realize that to tell the history of the blues means to tell the history of blacks in America, too. Lead Belly’s song “Jim Crow Blues,” sung by Odetta, addresses the subjugation of African-Americans head-on, but the blues in general were influenced by such somber affairs.

And the music! Here’s David “Honeyboy” Edwards, 88 years old at the time of the concert, sitting in a chair, singing his own “Gamblin’ Man” and playing the guitar like it’s an appendage. There’s John Fogarty singing Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special” and doing it with such growling intensity as to remove all doubt that he was an appropriate choice to perform. Or what about Solomon Burke, an enormous, thunder-voiced man in a natty suit sitting in a giant chair and singing his own “Down in the Valley,” the 1965 song that he once sang in front of the Klan? All of the singers are identified by on-screen captions, as are the song titles, original performers and year of composition. It is as much a lesson in musical appreciation as it is a thrilling concert.

I do question why, in some cases, lesser names singing less significant songs are given more screen time than their betters, and I wonder what Aerosmith is doing there at all. (Of course, wherever Aerosmith is, I always wonder what they’re doing there.)

From rehearsal footage, we get the great moment when Odetta, a too-serious aging blues chanteuse, chews out the band for overpowering the vocals of Ruth Brown. Brown, a dignified but light-hearted old legend, deflects Odetta’s intercession, saying, “I’m so glad to have the gig, I’ll scream (if I have to).”

Even if you are only dimly aware of such names as Ruth Brown and B.B. King and Dr. John, it is satisfying to see them greet each other backstage, to hug and kiss and offer praise of one another’s talents. It’s like the Academy Awards, except that these artists, working in a non-mainstream genre, are much more humble about themselves than the big-heads on the red carpet. They seem like good folks, hard-working and dedicated to their music, and all part of the same community. And bless ’em, they seem pretty happy, too, for blues singers.

A- (1 hr., 48 min.; PG-13, brief strong language.)