At one point in Daniel Cross’ I Am the Blues one of the many musicians is casually reminiscing on what music has meant to him. Just as he wraps up his tale, he looks up at the camera and casually mumbles, “There’s always a story behind the song.” That one quote is probably the best summary of the entire film. I Am the Blues isn’t about any one song, one person, or one story, it’s about all of the bits and pieces that fell through the cracks of time and trying to find a way to keep them alive.
We can see the grime, we can see the inherent sadness of it all, but in these moments there is no depression. It is as if as each musician tells his tale and strums his guitar that everything is ok again.
Music is a weird, varied, and ever changing thing. What is popular today is forgotten tomorrow. Stars flair out daily while others change things up just to keep audiences listening. Blues is really no different. Blues didn’t die with B.B. King, it’s a genre that weaves through the musical landscape of today. Without blues we wouldn’t have The White Stripes or The Black Keys. Even rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z draw inspiration from the blues not only in the songs that they sample but in their very proclivities for storytelling. The only problem with drawing these connections when talking about I Am the Blues is that it doesn’t really care about today, at least not the today of the music world.
As I Am the Blues references legends of its genre like Howlin’ Wolf, who perhaps shows up with the most frequency, it is with a disconnection that keeps the film humble. The clubs of I Am the Blues are small, cramped, and in desperate need of a new coat of paint, and that is kind of the way its subjects want it. That’s what they are used to, that’s what the Chitlin’ Circuit was. So Cross takes us through these juke joints, into churches, onto the front lawns of his subjects to get to the real meat of it all. And it works, the many musicians open up about the old days and more importantly, show that they still have the skills that once earned them a club provided hamburger. We can see the grime, we can see the inherent sadness of it all, but in these moments there is no depression. It is as if as each musician tells his tale and strums his guitar that everything is ok again. The music is their release and all of the sadness comes out in the songs.
While the plethora of stories is certainly the film’s calling card, it also inevitably feels like its downfall. There is no true through line to the film, no rise, no fall, just a flatline from start to finish. I Am the Blues is so positively packed with musicians that it honestly becomes a bit of a chore to keep them all straight in your head. The closest thing the film has to a lead is Bobby Rush. Although, despite Rush’s persistent presence he is probably the person we come to know the least. He pops in and out like a polished Master of Ceremonies, always positive, always smiling. Where musicians like Lazy Lester and Carol Fran come out with naked honesty, Rush keeps his trifles with reality under lock and key. If it were not for a small moment that Cross seemed to catch on tape accidently, Rush would seem like I Am the Blues’ lone champion. But that’s the thing about this documentary, nobody is actually doing great, they are alive and able to play the music they love, and oddly that seems to be enough for all of them.
As Bud Spires wails on his harmonica with what seems to be his last breaths, it is as if he is playing his own exit. We don’t talk to Bud, we just hear him play, and sometimes that’s enough.
Inevitably, I Am the Blues feels less like a contained film and more like a time capsule. Director Daniel Cross has gone excavating in the south to unearth the legends that never were of a genre that feels forever in the past. The film lacks the drive to propel it through its slower moments, trading one larger message for many smaller ones. But it is hard to fault the film entirely for taking this route. Undoubtedly, the many musicians’ stories are interesting and do more to transport the audience back to the Chitlin’ Circuit than any staged reenactment could have dreamt of. Even stronger than the stories are the performances. For many, music is where the truth resides and Cross has expertly removed himself from the proceedings enough to allow the performances to feel organic and in some cases truly heartbreaking. As Bud Spires wails on his harmonica with what seems to be his last breaths, it is as if he is playing his own exit. We don’t talk to Bud, we just hear him play, and sometimes that’s enough. I Am the Blues does everything in its power to prove to us that it’s not necessarily blues that needs to be remembered, but rather the many people that have come to define it.
Come for the stories, stay for the music.
Inevitably, I Am the Blues feels less like a contained film and more like a time capsule...I Am the Blues does everything in its power to prove to us that it’s not necessarily blues that needs to be remembered, but rather the many people that have come to define it.