Leading the Blues Brigade are A-list director Martin Scorsese and six other respected filmmakers who have created what Scorsese calls "highly personal and impressionistic" feature-length films on the blues. The seven-part PBS series is simply called The Blues, but the films are anything but simple in what they reveal about the music and its relation to the country that spawned it (see Tune In).
To executive producer Scorsese, auteur of Raging Bull, GoodFellas, Gangs of New York, and other hit films, the blues is "the foundation of American popular music." German-born Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club) calls it "an urgent and extraordinary form of expression, the quintessential 20th-century music." And Charles Burnett, who directed To Sleep with Anger and The Glass Shield, says the music is "an essential source of imagery, humor, irony, and insight that allows one to reflect on the human condition."
Joining Scorsese, Wenders, and Burnett in The Blues are Clint Eastwood, whose many credits include Bird, his biopic of jazz giant Charlie Parker, and Straight, No Chaser, a documentary about pianist Thelonious Monk; Mike Figgis (Stormy Monday, Leaving Las Vegas); Richard Pearce (The Long Walk Home, No Mercy); and Charles Levin (Brooklyn Babylon, Whiteboys). Spike Lee was in the mix early on, but had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts, leaving Burnett as the only African-American director in the series.
The PBS series is the biggest, brightest float in a multimedia parade called Year of the Blues, so designated by the U.S. Senate, in part because 2003 marks the 100th anniversary of black composer W. C. Handy's "discovery" of the blues while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Along with the television series comes a 13-part bluesfest on National Public Radio, a handsome book of essays and archival material (The Blues: A Musical Journey), a fat CD boxed set, traveling exhibits, and numerous concerts. The festivities kicked off in February with a bash at New York's Radio City Music Hall featuring B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, and others. (A film of that concert, helmed by director Antoine Fuqua of Training Day , will be released late this year.) Taken together, this blues blitz could put the music back on America's cultural radar screen.