As the cradle of the blues, the Mississippi Delta is enveloped in an almost mystical allure seemingly at odds with its pervasive poverty, decay and vestiges of Jim Crow. I know. I was born in Clarksdale, a Delta town and home to some of the greatest pioneers in the history of blues, including Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. From the hardscrabble existence of sharecropping came a unique brand of American music, one still thriving in the region, as evidenced by the documentary M for Mississippi: A Road Trip Through the Birthplace of the Blues.
In the spring of 2008, blues aficionados Roger Stolle and Jeff Konkel loaded into a van and spent a week traversing the back roads of the Delta to spotlight a dozen local blues artists. The doc boasts an endearing do-it-yourself vibe that befits a movie celebrating music that is stripped-down and typically devoid of ornamentation. Our tour guides, a pair of quasi-urbane white guys, visit various ramshackle homes and juke joints for brief interviews and jam sessions.
The showcased bluesmen include Terry "Harmonica" Bean, Wesley "Junebug" Jefferson, R.L. Boyce, Pat Thomas, James "T-Model" Ford, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, "Cadillac" John Nobel, Robert "Bilbo" Walker, Robert "Wolfman" Belfour and L.C. Ulmer. Stolle and Konkel also visit a street musician who goes by the moniker "Mr. Tater, the Music Maker," as well as a guy who asks that his identity be concealed because he's a deacon in a church that frowns on blues (even though the movie shows us the exterior of his house!).
M for Mississippi (the title comes from a blues song by Big George Brock) is a pleasant travelogue made with obvious affection for the blues and the people who make it. There are some wonderful, low-key moments. Jefferson, who died from lung cancer in July of this year, shows the filmmakers around the remnants of the farm where his family once worked picking cotton. Ford recounts his time on a prison chain gang. And a few of the old-timers dispute whether there's any secret ingredient for effectively playing the blues. Nobel insists that a true bluesman has "gotta hurt," while Belfour says, "I didn't come up no hard way. I just worked on the farm ... We had a few hard times, but it wasn't so bad."
Stolle and Konkel are likeable and enthusiastic hosts, but they're not naturally inclined documentarians. The Mississippi Delta is thick with the ghosts of blues giants, but the doc never delves into the history of the region. More troubling is the film's tendency to interrupt performances with interview clips, little of which is more compelling than the raw, chugging power of the music being made.
For a documentary done on a shoestring budget with a single cameraman, M for Mississippi looks astonishingly good. Although some dimly lighted scenes are a bit muddy and there is some softness in the imagery, the transfer is, all things considered, quite decent.
The mix is crisp and clear, with no distortion or dropout. Subtitles are available in English and Italian.
Eight extended scenes and deleted scenes, which can only be viewed separately, are mainly of interest for the few musical numbers. Total running time is 14 minutes, 10 seconds.
A little more than 16 minutes of behind the scenes reveal tongue-in-cheek humor and some clips that probably should have made it in the main feature. Rounding things out are an original trailer, photo gallery, filmmaker & musician bios, and related CDs and DVDs.
M for Mississippi is aimed squarely at blues enthusiasts who will be gratified to know that the birthplace of the blues is still alive and well. Paradoxically, the documentary profiles are too sketchy to satisfy viewers who might yearn for a deeper understanding of a region where blues legends are as plentiful as cotton.