Dir: Wim Wenders. Germany. 2003. 100mins
Wim Wenders' The Soul Of A Man, which screened earlier this year at Sundance and played at Cannes as a special screening, is the first in a series of seven films about that quintessential American art form, the blues. Other notable directors taking part are Charles Burnett, Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, Marc Levin and Martin Scorsese, with Scorsese acting as godfather to the whole. Judging by this first offering, however, one wonders how successful such a series can ever hope to be. Sure, the music is there, and it is fantastic, but, at least in this initial instalment, its presentation is hobbled by cliche and awkward narrative decisions. It is clear that Wenders' heart is in the right place - he has said 'these songs mean the world to me' - but choosing, as he put it, to make something more like a poem than a documentary, has not completely worked out.
Rather than going the Ken Burns' overly didactic, chronological route, Wenders has wisely chosen to focus on just three bluesmen, Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, and JB Lenoir, who will be largely unknown to non-specialists. The film begins from the perspective of outer space, where we follow the 1977 launch of Voyager, which contained the disc of music meant to represent us to putative other worlds. Narrator Laurence Fishburne tells us proudly that he, Blind Willie Johnson, is on that disk, but when Fishburne for no good reason continues to narrate the entire film, the inconsistency is confusing. Given the fact that Fishburne heavily plays up the Southern accent when the narration does, intermittently, clearly represent Johnson's perspective, it seems he was as confused as viewers are going to be.
Since little film footage of the first two figures is extant, Wenders tells their story through sometimes awkward re-creations. They're well-done technically, with tinted stock shot slightly out-of-focus, but when Wenders sticks the authentically recorded songs into scenes that he otherwise presents as silent footage, the confusion increases, especially when he resorts to inter-titles for important bits of dialogue. Interspersed throughout is real documentary footage (cotton workers, prohibition, civil rights demonstrators, etc) meant to set the context for the music, but it is done in an especially cursory manner through over-familiar images.
Other bits of footage celebrate the context of black life, emphasising the irrevocable source of the blues. In one of his best decisions, Wenders intersperses, among the shaky dramatic re-creations, modern performances of the same songs, by largely white performers like Bonnie Raitt, Beck and Marc Ribot, stressing the music's universality.
Pervasive themes are the spiritual underpinnings of the music and its importance in the political struggles of the 1960s, and Wenders gives full credit to both. Less successful is the constant reminder of the tragedy of these lives lived in the shadow of American racism (Lenoir died at age 37 after receiving inadequate hospital care following a car accident, James was forgotten for 30 years after the studio that recorded him in the 1930s went bankrupt). While all undoubtedly true, it has the deadening effect of confirming what we already know so well, rather than trying to teach us something new.
Prod cos: Road Movies, Vulcan Productions
Int'l sales: Road Sales
Prods: Alex Gibney, Margaret Bodde
Exec prods: Martin Scorsese, Ulrich Felsberg, Paul G Allen, Jody Patton
Cinematography: Lisa Rinzler
Ed: Mathilde Bonnefoy
Main cast: Keith B Brown, Chris Thomas King
Featured performers: Beck, T-Bone Burnett, Nick Cave, Shemekia Copeland, Eagle Eye Cherry, Garland Jeffreys, Chris Thomas King, Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt, Marc Ribot, Lou Reed, Vernon Reid, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, James 'Blood' Ulmer, Lucinda Williams, Cassandra Wilson, Alvin Youngblood Hart