THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
The shock of some legendary blues singers is just how different their lives are from the mythical legends that surround the music. So while Robert Johnson may have sold his soul to the devil and then died on his knees, barking like a dog, Howlin' Wolf, on the other hand, lived a surprisingly normal life. Sure, he started out as dirt poor as any bluesman, but by all accounts presented in The Howlin' Wolf Story he became a loving father and husband as well as a hard worker. That, coupled with his square head and thick-framed glasses, means he hardly had the image of a wild-man.
It's weird that somehow these things would be so shocking, but Howlin' Wolf sits in the pantheon of true blues greats, one of only a handful recognizable to even those with little interest in the music. This documentary suffers from some of the same problems as Muddy Waters: Can't Be Satisfied and John Lee Hooker: That's My Story: It's just not that exciting. There are lots of unimaginatively shot talking heads, there are a lot of stories about growing up on a farm, and there's a good bit of stock footage.
Since blues was often treated like something of an anthropological study by intellectual America there isn't much mass-media footage of Wolf and his contemporaries. The few solid sources of live performance available are used well here. Wolf's only national television performance (a slot on Shindig that was set up by The Rolling Stones) is used as is a casual backstage jam taken from the Newport 1966 festival. This impromptu performance, captured lovingly by legendary music archivist Alan Lomax, includes Wolf's straight-forward description of the blues ("When you ain't got no money, you got the blues.")
One thing that The Howlin' Wolf Story does have over other similar pieces is that it allows performance footage to play at length, so we do get to hear full versions of great songs like "Little Red Rooster" and "Dust My Broom." It's nice to hear more than the typical thiry-second clip interrupted by blathering interviews. Here the music gets a chance to tell its own story.
Another unique aspect of the program is the way it takes the opportunity to paint a broader portrait of blues history. Significant blues sites like Mississippi's Johnnie's Juke Joint and Chicago's Silvio's Restaurant are discussed not only for their importance to Wolf but to the music itself. There's also some terrific footage of other blues musicians, including a powerful a capella reading of "John the Revelator" by Son House.
House figures into an interesting segment late in the film as well: In the Newport 1966 footage Wolf offers a hard-handed dressing down of a drunk and disruptive Son House: "You had a chance with your life and you ain't done nothin' with it. You don't love but one thing and that's whiskey." It's a powerful moment to a blues fan and the lessons are unmistakably real. The relative calm of Wolf's family life and his beefy, hearty image contrasted with House's wasted old journeyman demeanor makes quite an impression.
In addition to profiling Howlin' Wolf and the blues scene, the program also spends a good deal of time on Wolf's longtime sidekick, the talented guitar player Hubert Sumlin. Sumlin's rhythmic playing heavily influenced an entire generation of rock guitarists, including Clapton, Page, Beck and a veritable Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's worth. Sumlin, still kicking around, is interviewed throughout the film and his reminiscences, while tough to understand at times thanks to his accent, are valuable. After a certain point in his career Wolf quit playing guitar and concentrated on singing and motivating the crowd. The music and video here shows Sumlin ably stepping into the guitar spot and melding his playing with Wolf's amazing voice. It's nice that the show should recognize that special connection.
In the end it's the power of Wolf's voice that makes his legacy so interesting. From his first Sun Studio recording in 1951 ("How Many More Years," featuring a stunningly harsh vocal that must have been shocking in its day) to his final performances, when he fought his age to still deliver provocative performances, Howlin' Wolf was the real deal.
The full-screen video is simple and unexciting. The interviews are plain video, often a bit soft and bland. The archival footage varies in quality but some of it looks quite good.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 and it's fine, if unremarkable. The gritty production of the music is well served if some of the interviews are a little murky.
A series of additional interviews exploring the legendary rivalry between Wolf and Muddy Waters is included. What's cool about this segment is that it really hints at the contradictory nature of this sort of remembrance. Some members of Wolf's family claim that there was no real rivalry, that it was just cooked up to sell records. Others say it was real. The man with the most to say about it is Hubert Sumlin, whose rambling, nearly incoherent story about how Muddy and the Wolf couldn't stand each other is a hoot.
A monumental live audio recording of "Little Red Rooster" is played over a series of excellent black-and-white stills. Probably the simplest, most perfect supplement to a film about music.
An additional interview finds Wolf bandmember Sam Lay telling a rambling story of why he left the band and then later returned. It somehow involves ripping his pants or something and sounds suspiciously like a story Cosmo Kramer sold to J. Peterman in a famous Seinfeld episode. Elsewhere on the disc color home movies shot by Lay of Wolf are presented as well.
Blues documentaries like The Howlin' Wolf story are never as juicy as you want them to be. At least this one presents some of the music at full length instead of only offering enticing snippets. Still, Wolf's life wasn't as mystical as the sound of his voice, which is fine since players like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton may have steeped themselves in devil-music atmosphere but they also died before ever getting the chance to settle down and let the music work for them. Wolf may have led a modest life but from the sound of things here it was a pretty great one.