By Stephen Remus
Montreal filmmaker Daniel Cross is an activist who channels his energy into documentary films. He’s made docs about black hockey players and the NHL’s colour line of the 1930s, an unflinching film about homelessness six years in the making, and a raw portrait of squeegee kids. His latest film, I Am the Blues, has him gravel-travelling across the southern US to find the, “last generation of Blues Devils.”
The musicians featured in the film include: Bobby Rush, Barbara Lynn, Henry Gray, Carol Fran, Little Freddie King, Lazy Lester, Bilbo Walker, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, RL Boyce, LC Ulmer, and Lil’ Buck Sinegal. Many are in their 80s, but are still touring the legendary Chitlin’ Circuit of live music venues scattered mostly throughout the South.
Cross needed a guide for his back-roads journey and hooked up with Dr. Ike, the organizer of the Ponderosa Stomp, a New Orleans-based non-profit that celebrates the legacies, revitalizes the careers, and preserves the history of American music and musicians. The Stomp served as musical consultant on the film. The SOUND caught up to Dr. Ike in the ether of the internet (Dr. Ike’s an Anesthesiologist and Asst. Prof. at LSU School of Medicine) to find out how a Canadian filmmaker hooked in, and what we can expect from I Am the Blues.
What’s the connect between you and Dan? How’d you end up working together?
Dr. Ike: Dan Cross had come to a Ponderosa Stomp showcase at the Pop Montreal Festival a few years back. The director of Pop Montreal, Dan Seligman, put him in touch with me. Dan called me about making a film. I liked what I heard. I told him to fly down and let’s go interview some musicians for research for the film. He flew down and we spent a day in New Orleans and two weeks in the Delta and Memphis filming interviews. Dan was hooked. The massive amount of interviews are on the film’s website in the Stomp’s archive.
How’d you select the musicians for the film?
We wanted to ensure Dan was able get to the real unsung heroes of the Blues. The artists I felt passionately were the ones to film. I basically selected the artists to contact, set-up the interviews, led the majority of the filmed interviews and took Dan and crew through The Mississippi Delta, Southwest Louisiana, New Orleans, and a few side trips. Many of the artists interviewed had played the Stomp. Scott Bomar and Lefty Parker who worked for years on the Stomp worked on the film as soundmen.
Recent mainstream films like Muscle Shoals, The Wrecking Crew, and Twenty Feet from Stardom brought some warranted attention to largely unknown musicians. I Am the Blues is another venture mining the rich vein of the American musical tradition. What’s compelling all the interest?
People are drawn to things that are real and authentic. Good music is timeless art. In addition, the emotion of the blues allows people to sense it and feel it.
I’m guessing that you’ve talked with many of the artists profiled in the film since they’ve seen it. Can you share some of their reactions to it?
The musicians have been blown away by the film. They really feel that it captures them. They feel it’s something very special.
I Am the Blues has been nominated for two Academy of Canada Cinema and Television Awards for Best Feature Length Documentary and Best Cinematography in a Feature Length Documentary. It screens at the FirstOntario Performing Art Centre’s Film House on Wed 1 February at 8PM in the Doc Spotlight and on Saturday 11 February at 9:30PM as part of the ongoing See the Music series. DJ Awkward Mix will spin blues favourites in the Film House’s Cogeco Lobby for a half hour preceding both screenings.
Screens on Wednesday 1 February at 8PM and Saturday 11 February at 9:30PM at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Film House