Lightning in a Bottle
All-star concerts are the Hollywood blockbusters of music with all the potential for blandness that implies. There's the Freddy-versus-Jason excitement of seeing musical greats trade riffs, but the sheer amount of money involved can polish away the passion that made the music exciting in the first place. To its credit, Lighting in a Bottle (2004) understands this. This hugely entertaining concert film records an evening that brought dozens of musical legends (and a few youngsters) to Radio City Music Hall to survey the history of the blues. As producer Martin Scorsese says in his opening remarks, "What we're going to try to do is tell the story of this great music from its beginnings"; the result is a massively produced (some might say over-produced) affair that zips across a century of music in 103 minutes. Old stalwarts like Ruth Brown and Odetta tear up blues and roots classics alongside youngsters like Macy Gray and India.Arie. Marquee names like Bonnie Raitt and Steven Tyler help bring in the (largely white) audience. Some of the pairings are downright strange as when New York Doll David Johansen growls over guitar legend Hubert Sumlin. Even Bill Cosby turns up. There's a rationale behind all this diversity household names like B.B. King and Buddy Guy are used to draw our ears to underappreciated artists like Larry Johnson. But what could have been an attention-deficit VH1 special writ large ends up surprisingly intimate. Director Antoine Fuqua keeps "Lightning" focused tightly on the faces of its performers with interviews and archival footage hinting at the larger history. The movie seems to be working against its own vastness; has a concert film ever had fewer wide shots or quicker audience cutaways? Yes, there are a few lame moments, most involving the young. (Chuck D's anti-war re-imagining of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom," for example, is a buzz-killing, audience-seating ear-bleeder.) But there's so much to love: The way each performer has a slightly different take on "the missing ingredient between the notes"; the way the older artists seem nigh-indestructible (Ruth Brown shows up after a stroke and Sumlin shows up minus a lung, and they both rip the place to shreds); archival footage of Jimi Hendrix worshipping at the feet of Buddy Guy; Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown taking on a full horn section with his guitar and winning; Solomon Burke singing from a throne; B.B. King recalling a performance where he was so poorly received, "It was like being black twice." And there's a great remark by Sumlin, which captures the remorse and vitality of the blues in a single sentence: "I ain't through payin' dues yet, and I'm 70 years old."
The Columbia TriStar/Sony Pictures Classics platter of Lightning in a Bottle looks and sounds fine, but it's painfully thin on extras; the lack of any sort of commentary adding historical context to the music or a single scrap of additional backstage footage feels like a real missed opportunity, given the sheer number of deities on hand. There's a fairly innocuous "Antoine Fuqua interview" (8 min.) in which he riffs on his conversations with Scorsese and the conceits and personalities behind the concert, and it's all terribly EPK. More interesting is a "Bonus Tracks" menu that contains five additional performances of varying quality: "Stop Messin' Around" performed by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (3 min.); "The Sky is Crying" with Greg Allmann and Warren Haynes (5 min.); "Minnesota Blues" with Mos Def (5 min.); "First Time I Met the Blues" with Buddy Guy (4 min.); and a bizarre scratch-remix take on "Revelation" with Chris Thomas King (4 min.). Why they cut some of these and left Chuck D in the film is a mystery for the ages. Solid anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (which is, seriously, listed as "Dobly Digital" on the back of the keep-case).