The great thing about getting the opportunity to do a retrospective about a legend in a particular industry is that so many people who are icons in their own right are willing to bring their own contributions to the mix. When it comes to B.B. King, the line of superstars who want to praise King forms to the left in The Life Of Riley.
King worked with Jon Brewer, who previously has done similar documentaries on Jimi Hendrix, Bad Company and Nat King Cole among others. With Morgan Freeman providing narration, the film looks as the life and key moments within King's professional career. The list of interview subjects for the film is a Who's Who: Bill Cosby, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Ron Wood, Carlos Santana, Buddy Guy. Freeman even sits down for a couple of minutes to share thoughts on the man. But the film also interviews people who know King aside from sharing the stage with him, whether it is friends, an ex-wife, or even longtime friends who knew King growing up in Mississippi. King also speaks to the camera occasionally, discussing what his legacy may be, what people may think of him and anything else which may come to his mind over the course of the feature.
In The Life Of Reilly, we get to see how King achieved his crossover success in the 1960s and ‘70s, but also how it revived with more modern acts like U2 (and Bono is interviewed for that additional context). King's childhood growing up and dealing with the everyday hardships that virtually all African Americans dealt with in pre-World War II Mississippi is startling to watch and listen to in how casual is sounds.
For as good as Life of Riley is in the first act, there does seem to be a controlled distance and occasional lack of focus to the film that for me (going from memory, at least) was reminiscent of King's 1996 autobiography "Blues All Around Me." Yes, he went through a lot growing up, yes he has put in a ton of work to get where he has gotten. Yes, he has a weakness for women. And like the book, the subjects tend to randomly bounce. The introspection seems to be there for King, but how it is used needs some minor calibration. Life of Riley almost tends to want to spend more time showing some of King's more famous moments with politicians, musicians and the late Pope John Paul himself (admittedly a really cool moment) but does not do well in placing these moments into their proper appreciation most times.
There is a melancholy nature to Life of Riley for me in that the film was released in 2012 and to my cursory glances, there have not been many appearances from the King of Blues in the last year and a half. I would hope he is doing well if nothing else so if there is more to the book that is Riley King that we see it. The film gives us a starter and a decent entrée, though the latter needs some work. And if we get the dessert? Oh boy.
Life of Riley is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and looks fine generally. The film borrows a lot from King's private collection of still photos and vintage video that spans what appears to be six decades. The current film looks good and the older stuff (while deliberately ‘aged') also is in good shape. Little in the way of artifacts or image noise plagues the disc and considering the various things it is supposed to present, the disc does them all well.
It sounds as if the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is the same one found on the Blu-ray which if correct is a disappointment. The interview footage sounds slightly inconsistent and the music (which occurs often) does not include much of the rear channels and virtually none of the subwoofer to communicate a broad soundstage. It was a decent-sounding disc, but could have been so much more.
Two songs from his 2011 concert at the Royal Albert Hall are here (8:34), which you can either watch independently or if you wish, check out our review of the concert on Blu-ray. There are also additional interviews with Guy, Raitt, Wood, Santana and others (25:40) which help fill out a little more background on the man and his influence.
To be sure, The Life of Riley is a solid film for those unfamiliar with B.B. King and his exceptional life and career. But if you do know a facet or two of it, you are left feeling that the film does not hoe a lot of new ground, and takes whatever time that it wants to tell whatever story it wants. Technically the disc is fine though the audio was a bummer, and on the bonus material side of things is unmistakably disappointing. Worth checking out for peripheral fans of his work, though longer-term fans may not get too much out of it.