"People say, 'You make 'em feel happy then you make 'em feel sorry then you make 'em think about bad times.' And I say, 'But they enjoy it. They love it. They feel what I feel when I'm playing.'" — Robert "Wolfman" Belfour
Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art and Jeff Konkel of Broke & Hungry Records set out to capture the Delta blues scene in their documentary debut, M for Mississippi: A Road Trip through the Birthplace of the Blues. Juking down small Mississippi two-lanes off the renowned Highway 61, Stolle and Konkel share a piece of music tradition that is as rich as it is unadorned. Whether or not you believe the blues will outlast its veteran practitioners, you will appreciate seeing them in their element.
If you know anything about current Delta blues, some names in the film will stand out: T-Model Ford, Bill Abel, Foster "Tater" Wiley. (Coincidentally, these bluesmen will all be playing at the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival in Clarksdale this weekend.) Others represent the range of blues influence, from sweet-voiced octogenarian L.C. Ulmer to Lightnin' Malcolm holding forth in the younger generation of blues artists.
Where the film succeeds most is capturing all the artists in the casual constancy of the blues lifestyle, from juke-joint performances to living-room sessions to a recording studio run out of the back of Bill Abel's Volvo station wagon.
The sights and sounds will be familiar to many Memphians, but the authentic taste of local dives (Shelby's Do Drop Inn and Red's Lounge in Clarksdale) and the remnants of blues culture should pique the interest of blues fans everywhere. Venturing into homes and workspaces of blues musicians, Stolle and Konkel fill out an ambitious weeklong road trip without being cursory in their coverage.
Perhaps a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers or an unavoidable truth about the region: The film features no blues women. There is one small mention of female musicians in the blues scene, but otherwise the legacy of blues greats such as Memphis Minnie and Bertha Lee goes unaddressed.
Another drawback is the filmmakers' decision to insert themselves in a sort of meta-narrative — their film about making their film. After a funny introductory bit about the lessons they learned while producing M for Mississippi, the documentary should stand alone, focusing solely on the musicians. Instead, we are privy to bland scenes leading up to the interviews, with more attention to the filmmakers than the film subjects.
Nevertheless, the film is clearly a labor of love from two serious blues fans. Stolle and Konkel anchor their project with just enough expertise to make it legitimate but enough earnest curiosity to keep things entertaining.