RIFF: Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty Review

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Johnny_Winter_Studio

Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty (2014)

Cast: Johnny Winter, James Cotton, Jim Dandy
Director: Greg Olliver
Country: USA
Genre: Documentary

Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Reel Indie Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit http://reelindiefilmfest.com/ and follow the event on Twitter at @RIFF_Toronto

Discovering exciting music or a new artist through a documentary can be a hugely exciting experience, but can also give a feeling of being patronised somewhat. Some films carry a lecturing tone, almost challenging the viewer to explain why they haven’t been a fan of this or that music for their entire lives. What have you been listening to? Others are stifled by over-familiarity, with the artist so well known, and often private, that any documentary simply acts as an extended promotional campaign. There are some though, such as Greg Olliver’s Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty that are respectful to both subject and audience, effectively telling the story of someone you may have heard of, but that you should definitely consider taking another listen to regardless of your musical tastes. Regardless of whether that happens, it will be hard not to be moved by this immensely enjoyable film.

Regardless of whether that happens, it will be hard not to be moved by this immensely enjoyable film.

There is one fact beyond argument: Johnny Winter was a hell of a guitarist. As a blues artist of repute Winter garners praise from all areas of the musical world, with his high-energy rock style having influenced artists from ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons to Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, the latter declaring that “at least he knows where he steals from” in relation to this distinctive blues-rock style.

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The real joy in Down & Dirty though is in Olliver’s filmmaking style. Despite the access he has been granted there is never a feeling of it being invasive, never a suspicion of anything being scripted purely for cinematic purposes. Winter comes across as a man who has faced his demons and with the help of some very close and loyal friends has defeated them, although the many scars remain. This is a man seemingly haunted by his own existence in a world that has lost so many of his peers and friends, a man who struggles to balance why artists he considers legends are no longer with us and yet he lives on.

There is added poignancy to this already emotive film in that Winter passed away in the July of 2014, with the causes as yet unconfirmed. There is an atmosphere throughout the film that there is something almost final about the footage, the honest story of a man who has lived the life of many, and who despite being healthier than at any time in recent years, is still, in his own quiet way saying farewell. Occasionally though, a mischievous streak is still evident in eyes that reflect a worldly sadness, and it is in these moments that Winter’s former nature is revealed as vodka is consumed without restriction or thought of consequences.

Winter comes across as a man who has faced his demons and with the help of some very close and loyal friends has defeated them, although the many scars remain.

Olliver has superbly captured the final years of an artist who rightfully has the respect of millions as one of the figureheads of a movement that crosses musical boundaries. With a distinctive style of playing and a rasping, powerful voice, Johnny Winter is certain to draw new fans with this film, and with a posthumous album released in September his legacy is guaranteed.

8.5 GREAT

Olliver has superbly captured the final years of an artist who rightfully has the respect of millions as one of the figureheads of a movement that crosses musical boundaries. With a distinctive style of playing and a rasping, powerful voice, Johnny Winter is certain to draw new fans with this film, and with a posthumous album released in September his legacy is guaranteed.

  • 8.5
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About Author

My interest in film originated from the excited anticipation of waiting to find out which new film would be shown on television as the Christmas Day premiere, which probably says more about my age than I would like! I am a lover of all things cinematic with a particular interest in horror and began writing and reviewing as an excuse to view and discuss as many films as possible, with as many people as possible.