The blues are a unique musical genre – they're born out of equal parts pain and pleasure. The blues can lift you up, drag you down, console you when you're lonely and help you remember the good times of the past; in short, the blues are a lot like life, with good, bad and extraordinary blended into one often overwhelming experience.
Extending that metaphor a bit further, the blues help build the spine of Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson's acclaimed autobiographical one-man play, Lackawanna Blues, which, according to Playbill magazine, played off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in 2001, where Santiago-Hudson portrayed over 20 characters with original music composed and performed by guitarist Bill Sims. In addition, Santiago-Hudson toured the country with the piece before adapting it for the small screen, where it debuted on HBO in February 2005.
Drawn from Santiago-Hudson's memories of growing up in the late Fifties in Lackawanna, New York at Rachel "Nanny" Crosby's (S. Epatha Merkerson) boarding house, considered a gathering spot for a colorful cast of characters, all of whom have secrets and surprises. Helmed by veteran Broadway director George C. Wolfe ("Caroline, or Change") and starring Marcus Franklin as Ruben, Jr., Lackawanna Blues is a rich, episodic coming-of-age drama that distinctly evokes a time and place and does so with gusto.
As previously mentioned, the film is less a linear narrative than a collection of vignettes given life by an extraordinary cast, paying tribute to the gutsy, determined woman who both raised him from a young age as well as binding together the community, taking in the outcasts and misfits.
Speaking of the cast, Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson have gathered a high-octane group of thespians, in addition to Merkerson, who anchors the film with her quiet strength: Carmen Ejogo (HBO's "Boycott"), Louis Gossett, Jr. (An Officer and a Gentlemen); Macy Gray (Training Day); Hill Harper (He Got Game); Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow, Four Brothers); Delroy Lindo (The Cider House Rules); Rosie Perez (Do The Right Thing); Liev Schrieber (Scream, The Manchurian Candidate); Jimmy Smits ("NYPD Blue") and Jeffrey Wright (Broken Flowers, HBO's "Angels in America").
Lackawanna Blues lives and breathes, fusing an almost musical sense of history with a dramatic, at times, emotionally charged story. Santiago-Hudson's play translates well to the small screen and is a worthwhile journey for fans of character-driven ensemble piece.
Lackawanna Blues is presented in a slick, crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that practically pulses with life – from the opening credits with its weathered photos to the scenes set in Maxie's nightclub and their garish colors, this is a crackling image that does justice to Ivan Strasburg's vivid cinematography.
English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby 2.0 stereo, French 2.0 stereo and Spanish 2.0 stereo are included – the 5.1 track is smooth and robust, giving life to the raucous musical soundtrack, as well as making sure the dialogue is heard clearly and free of distortion. English, French and Spanish subtitles are included.
A modest array of supplemental material is available on the DVD – a genial, low-key and informative commentary track featuring director George C. Wolfe and writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson is on board, as is a two minute, 47 second deleted scene (offered in anamorphic widescreen) and a behind-the-scenes featurette which runs three minutes, 40 seconds.
An elegiac ode to glorious and occasionally painful days that are now treasured memories, Ruben Santiago-Hudson's autobiographical coming-of-age drama Lackawanna Blues is a solidly written, well-cast film that oozes a sense of authenticity. Recommended.