Hopefully, even the most casual fan of 1960s and ’70s rock ’n’ roll knows how much that music owes to its antecedents in American blues. If not, consider Scott D. Rosenbaum’s new documentary a primer. But even for well-informed fans of rock and/or the blues, this shaggy but affectionate film should be a treat — and perhaps even unearth a new nugget or two.
In the same vein as Standing in the Shadows of Motown and 20 Feet From Stardom, Rosenbaum’s film focuses not on the big stars, but on their sidemen. Here, it’s the last of the Chicago-based Delta bluesmen — pianist Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who for decades played alongside Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. The film makes a fair case that besides being worthy sidemen — and there’s no need to knock a steady gig — each of these men truly excelled at his instrument.
Rosenbaum was fortunate to travel with the three men in their later years (all died in 2011); they prove to be lively raconteurs and energetic performers. (In the film, Perkins is 96, still smoking and “addicted” to McDonald’s.) Naturally, Rosenbaum checks in with musicians influenced by these men, such as Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Winter and Derek Trucks. The film doesn’t delve too deeply into the often-troubled history of white bands achieving far more success with bluesy material than the original black bluesmen themselves. (And celebrating The Blues Brothers without comment seems like a misstep: Sure, that film gave these guys a late-in-life gig, but it’s a movie with wealthy white guys play-acting as bluesmen for laughs.) But after a lifetime of standing on the side of the stage, these three fantastic musicians do get the spotlight here — and in the contemporary concert clips, it’s a joy to see them hold it.