Part musical documentary and part concert film, director Antoine Fuqua's Lightning in a Bottle (2003) is an interesting glimpse at the history of blues music. Legendary performers such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker helped cement the genre's status in the public eye, but it really began much earlier. Originating in part as communication between plantation workers and peddlers, the blues developed from the African-American experience in America---particularly after slavery was Constitutionally abolished in 1865.
The first known recording was made in 1895 (George Johnson's "Laughing Song"), eventually leading to a popular explosion by the early 1920s. African-American talent was sought after nationwide, bringing in new names like Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith and Clara Smith (seen below in a vintage promotional advertisement). The genre proved to be quite a unique blend of styles in its own right---and while it's hardly at the forefront of today's music industry, enough legends of the genre are still around to make sure the story won't be forgotten.
Recorded on February 7th, 2003 at Radio City Music Hall, Lightning in a Bottle is really more a celebration of the blues as a form of expression. The large auditorium takes on a whole new appearance, with minimal lighting and a tasteful set design. It's worlds better than the flashy, overblown performances at most musical awards ceremonies, and about as close to the real atmosphere as you'll get in such a large environment. Interestingly enough---and what sometimes works against the flow of the event---is the choice of format used for the film, as vintage photos, clips, and interviews with legendary blues performers bookend many of the performances. It won't tell longtime blues lovers anything new, but it's a good jumping-on point for those looking to learn more about the genre. Featuring performances by contemporary artists and a generous helping of true music legends, it's a fairly fitting tribute to one of music's most overlooked genres. Here's your starting lineup:
Complete List of Musical Performances
1. "Zélié" (performed by Angelique Kidjo)
Overall, a fantastic lineup with only a few slight missteps: it was a little tough to stomach Macy Gray and David Johansen's performances, but Chuck D's re-invented version of "Boom Boom" as an anti-war protest theme was the evening's only real black eye. While I'm sure his intentions were good, this performance really seemed out of place. Still, it was especially interesting to hear several new interpretations of classic tracks, but the real treat was hearing performances from the original artists. There's also enough intricate guitar playing to inspire and/or frustrate young hopefuls (especially coming from Buddy Guy), and it was great to see the various performers in more candid behind-the-scenes segments and interviews.
Despite the great performances and respectful glimpses of history, though, it's a little unclear as to what director Fuqua was really going for. As a straight documentary, Lightning in a Bottle is a little light. As a concert film, it's a little too straightforward. Additionally, the blending of the two is a little disjointed by the end of the show, resulting in a portrait that looks nice but seems a little rushed. Still, the end result is entertaining, well-intentioned and informative---easily worth repeated viewings for any lover of great music. Sony's DVD treatment is fairly solid, with a lack of meaty bonus features as the only issue holding back this otherwise excellent release. With that said, let's see how this disc stacks up, shall we?
Likewise, Lightning in a Bottle earns high marks in the audio department. Although it may have sounded a bit tighter with a full-blown DTS option, the included Dolby Digital 5.1 mix does the job admirably. Music and dialogue are always easily understood, but subtitles are burned-in during certain interview segments for clarity's sake. The surround use is very frequent, as the overall concert atmosphere proves to be quite enveloping for the majority of the show. Overall, this is a fine presentation that really puts the viewer in the middle of the action.
With clean menu designs and easy navigation, the presentation for Lightning in a Bottle is simple and effective (although a bit of music would've been nice). The 109-minute show has been divided neatly into 28 chapters---roughly one for every major performance or behind-the-scenes segment---and no layer change was detected during playback. Packaging was fairly straightforward, with a complete list of performers advertised on the text-heavy front cover. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase, and a promotional insert was included for your buying convenience. Strangely enough, only French subtitles are offered during the main feature.
For one, I'd have loved to see much more in this department, especially in the form of an audio commentary (with Fuqua, producer Martin Scorsese and some of the performers, for example) or just more behind-the-scenes footage. Additionally, more history of the genre itself---perhaps in the form of a full-length documentary---would have been most welcome. It just seems that with the amount of history present during this show, there should have been an appropriately historic amount of extra goodies. Still, the show's the main attraction here, and it's worth the price of admission.
There's no doubt that Lightning in a Bottle captures a historic evening in grand fashion, but a few problems---mainly with the film's uneven pace---keep it from reaching the very top. Still, it's a terrific choice for lovers of great music, and a truly unique performance piece featuring some of the industry's most respected talent. While it's surprisingly slim on bonus features, Sony's DVD treatment offers an excellent technical presentation for a film that really demanded one. Overall, it's a decent value and one of the better music-related discs you'll find this year. Recommended.
Randy Miller III lost his dawg, but he's still an art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.