How would the blues choose to celebrate its 100th birthday? Would it get so drunk in a Mississippi shotgun shack that it couldn't see straight, then stagger home? Or would it let its good friend Volkswagen help finance a concert documentary in which its biggest stars perform for an audience composed largely of rich, middle-aged white people? Antoine Fuqua's concert film Lightning In A Bottle documents the latter scenario, recording a mammoth 100th-anniversary charity concert that united generations of blues legends for a landmark show at Radio City Music Hall. Any concert film called Lightning In A Bottle has plenty of chutzpah, but Fuqua works with a roster to back it up: B.B. King, Buddy Guy, John Fogerty, Ruth Brown, Hubert Sumlin, and Mavis Staples, just for starters.
Executive producer Martin Scorsese kicks things off by insisting that the evening's concert will tell the story of the blues, an ambitious goal the film seems less attached to as the evening progresses. The events unfold in roughly chronological order, touching on many of the major milestones in blues evolution. Not surprisingly, the quality of the performances varies greatly: Odetta's transcendent take on "Jim Crow Blues," which finds joy and perseverance in the face of agonizing pain, is followed by Natalie Cole's slick, showy take on "St. Louis Blues." Fortunately, the film leans heavily toward road-tested veterans who've come about their mastery through decades of struggle and toil, though it's not above throwing a bone to the VH1 demographic with performances by the likes of Macy Gray, Fogerty, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and Bonnie Raitt.
When Lightning In A Bottle steps back and simply lets the old-timers ply their trade, the result is consistently riveting. Leading a pack of heavyweights, the great Solomon Burke conveys more exhilaration and kinetic excitement sitting in a throne-like chair than performers half his age can muster with wild contortions. As the film's chronology speeds toward the present, its take on the blues fuses with jazz, funk, rock, and soul, even lurching into hip-hop with Chuck D and Fine Arts Militia, who turn John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" into a clumsy antiwar anthem. In spite of periodic missteps, Fuqua's rousing tribute to an American art form suggests that the spirit of the blues can be found anywhere and everywhere, even in the heart of New York City.