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Last of the Mississippi Jukes
Real blues juke joints don't exist anymore. I'm talking house-rockin', whiskey-swillin', blues-jumpin' good time juke joints of the type that Robert Johnson turned upside down 80 years ago. Those clubs were built to entertain the men and women of the deep South after long, hard days working on farms and other near-slavery jobs. They were little more than shacks where homemade whiskey and raw acoustic blues were the entertainment. The electrified juke joints on display in Robert Mugge's Last of the Mississippi Jukes are closer to regular clubs that happen to concentrate on the blues than anything else. Still, the atmosphere of the party permeates thanks to the energy of the musicians and the intimacy of the music. The blues can cover a lot of emotions, from the most ruinous heartbreak to the happiest, most joyous celebration. Mugge's film doesn't necessarily say anything new or comprehensive about the blues, and the clubs he covers don't seem to have anything to really distinguish them, but there's no keeping the groove down.
The film concentrates on only two juke joints (perhaps a thin premise for an 85 minute film). The first juke in the film is the unfortunately named Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It's not too cynical to suspect that this club is given as much attention as it is due to the fact that it's owned by Morgan Freeman. Freeman appears in a lengthy interview discussing his youth and the club, something that Mugge probably thought would up the starpower of his film. Given his impressive history as director of the classic film Deep Blues it's surprising to see him engaging in star worship. Even so, there isn't much to say about the Ground Zero club and the film stretches the topic out past the point of interest.
The second club covered is the Subway Lounge in Jackson. With a rich history, the thirty year-old juke was at risk of being closed, something that sparked Mugge to make the film in the first place. Unfortunately the Subway doesn't make an endlessly interesting subject either. Nearly all of the musicians echo the same sentiments in their interviews and there's only so much that you can say about the fight to keep the club open. Undoubtedly the Subway is a phenomenal good time but it's tough to tell from the film.
Still, the focus of the film is on the music and the flaws in the filmmaking has little impact of the vitality and vibrancy of many of the performances. From songwriter George Jackson's soulfully warbled rendition of "Still Called the Blues" to Patrice Moncele's bodacious version of "Strokin'" to J.T. Watkins and Levon Lindsey's moving duet on "End of the Rainbow," the vast emotional and textural breadth of the blues and its cousins soul and R&B are always stunning. The smooth style of Adbul Rasheed's performance of "Members Only" and the raw, acoustic grit of Alvin Hart on "Pony Blues" help to expand the boundaries of juke joint music.
The film also details the then-ongoing effort to keep the Subway open. It's interesting to hear the plans to restore the building just enough to keep the lounge open and, especially, to employ prison labor to keep costs down. This last bit is incredibly fitting, if uncommented on, given the patrons of the original juke joints. Sometimes history is a bit cruel and not without a sense of irony.
The non-anamorphic cinematography is simple but eloquent. Shot in the style (and probably with the aid of) club lighting, the film takes on a smoky but never hazy look. Intimate and appropriate, with a touch of grain but nothing distracting.
The soundtrack is available in Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS, and Dolby Digital 2.0. The 5.1 mixes are dynamic and sound fine, especially on the full band numbers. The 2.0 mix lacks a touch of the clarity but still sounds good.
The DVD includes a nice selection of outtakes including additional interviews and performances. There is also a photo gallery.
Mugge's film is far from perfect. It proposes an interesting story and doesn't really deliver. Still, the music is worth a listen. Some of it is truly terrific and, given that many of these acts are constantly cris-crossing the country, playing small club gigs, has the potential to open some ears to some righteous sounds.