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Film review: Lightning in a Bottle

Published: Thursday, Jan. 27 2005 2:35 p.m. MST

Blues legend B.B. King shows how it's done in "Lightning in a Bottle."

Paul Brissman, Sony Pictures Classics

You don't have to be a blues music aficionado to appreciate "Lightning in a Bottle."

This documentary/concert film — which was shot during the Feb. 7, 2003, "Salute to the Blues" at Radio City Music Hall — features performances by such masters of the form as Buddy Guy, Solomon Burke, B.B. King. But the movie doesn't depend on your knowledge of them or their works.

Still, those who are well-versed in the blues will love it even more and will surely delight in the film's more-than-a-dozen musical numbers in which both the older and younger musicians (including Natalie Cole, Macy Gray and Indie Arie) are backed by the such veteran musicians as Steve Jordan, Dr. John and Levon Holm.

For those who aren't so well-acquainted, the show is presented as a century-long history of the blues, with songs performed in chronological order, as well as archival footage of such late blues legends as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf.

The musicians are also allowed to tell their stories in their own words, often in company with some of their best-remembered songs, and the lecturing and "history lessons" are kept to a bare minimum.

Obviously, the film's best moments are the performance highlights. Burke is one of the great voices in all music, not just the blues, and his commanding rendition of "Down in the Valley" is done with gospel-music fervency.

The show's organizers and the filmmakers save the best for last, however, with the still amazing King taking center stage for "Sweet Sixteen."

That alone is enough to outweigh a handful of missteps, such as Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry slaughtering "I'm a King Bee" and Public Enemy rapper Chuck D turning Hooker's "Boom Boom" into an anti-war rant.

Throughout, director Antoine Fuqua and his camera crews stay focused on the performers, keeping the musical numbers intact and waiting to show the behind-the-scenes intrusions between the songs.

And believe it or not, the show's host, Martin Scorsese, who also served as one of the film's producers, even cuts short his usual rambling.

"Lightning in a Bottle" is rated PG-13 for scattered use of strong profanity and racial epithets, as well as some references to drug use. Running time: 108 minutes.


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