Took me a moment to get used to Wim Wenders utilizing Chris Thomas King as a stand-in for Blind Willie Johnson, but eventually warmed to the idea of reenactment filmed in black and white stock. The film covers three of my favorite blues musicians: Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and J.B. Lenoir, and there is some actual historically significant footage later in the movie which is worth renting just to watch this, especially if you are a J.B. Lenoir fan1.
This disc includes the film “Soul of a Man,” in which director Wim Wenders delves into his personal music collection and takes a look at the histories of some of his favorite artists — including Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and J.B. Lenoir — as told through music (what else?). Footage of James, Lenoir, John Mayall and inspired covers by contemporary artists such as Eagle-Eye Cherry, Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt and Lou Reed are featured.
There is apparently a audio CD containing 20 songs from the movie
The DVD would have been better if the full performances were also available as an extra feature: with so many interpretations of these seminal blues songs by well-known artists, it is a shame that most clips only last a verse or less. I would have enjoyed watching the student film recording of J.B. Lenoir in their entirety as well.
Cassandra Wilson’s Vietnam Blues, Lucinda Williams’ Hard Times Killing Floor Blues, and Bonnie Raitt’s Devil Got My Woman were2 quite good, as was a trio consisting of Eagle-Eye Cherry, Vernon Reid, James “Blood” Ulmer performing a version of Down in Mississippi.
On the other hand, a few performances were cringe-worthy, including Beck’s version of I’m So Glad, and Lou Reed’s Look Down the Road. Beck released a pretty good album, One Foot in the Grave, recorded before he got famous that included a good cover of “He’s A Mighty Good Leader”, unfortunately Beck phoned in his performance on The Soul of A Man, I couldn’t listen to even the portion excerpted.
From the Wim Wenders website:
In “The Soul of A Man,” director Wim Wenders looks at the dramatic tension in the blues between the sacred and the profane by exploring the music and lives of three of his favorite blues artists: Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and J. B. Lenoir. Part history, part personal pilgrimage, the film tells the story of these lives in music through an extended fictional film sequence (recreations of ’20s and ’30s events – shot in silent-film, hand-crank style), rare archival footage, present-day documentary scenes and covers of their songs by contemporary musicians such as Shemekia Copeland, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Garland Jeffreys, Chris Thomas King, Cassandra Wilson, Nick Cave, Los Lobos, Eagle Eye Cherry, Vernon Reid, James “Blood” Ulmer, Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Marc Ribot, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Lucinda Williams and T-Bone Burnett.
Says Wenders: “These songs meant the world to me. I felt there was more truth in them than in any book I had read about America, or in any movie I had ever seen. I’ve tried to describe, more like a poem than in a ‘documentary,’ what moved me so much in their songs and voices.”
The rasping voice of Blind Willie Johnson, who earned his living on street corners and sang the title song, was sent into space on the Voyager in 1977 as part of the CD recording The Sounds of Earth, which had been placed onboard for posterity and/or examination by extra-terrestrial beings.
With the voice of Laurence Fishburne – Morpheus in the Matrix films – narrating, the film recounts the lives and times of the three using both old recordings and archive footage as well as fictional scenes and covers of their songs by contemporary musicians such as Nick Cave, Lou Reed and Beck.
Because there was no archive footage in existence of either Blind Willie Johnson or Skip James, Wenders used actors to play their roles but shot the scenes with an old 1920s black-and-white camera that lends realism, later using digital technology to fit the music to the pictures.
“I had to use old techniques but new technology,” Wenders said at Cannes. “This would have been impossible in the past.”
In the film, Wenders recounts that he first heard the name JB Lenoir when John Mayall in the late 1960s sang The death of JB Lenoir, a song that impacted a generation at the time.
“I wanted to know who this person was,” Wenders said, who crossed oceans to find information on Lenoir.
Music has long been a mother of cinematic invention in Wenders’ career. The title of his debut 1971 Summer In The City was from a hit by Lovin’ Spoonful and The Million Dollar Hotel was inspired by Bono of U2.”
(click here to continue reading The Soul of a Man/ Wim Wenders – The Official Site.)Footnotes: