Monday 15 October 2012

"BB King: The Life of Riley" (Moviemail 12/10/12)

The life of BB King, singer and blues guitarist, is one of the flagstone stories of black America, progressing from a sharecropper’s cottage in impoverished Mississippi – where one Riley B. King was born in 1925 – to request appearances at the White House. Along the way, King spanned religion (having a formative moment singing gospel at the local Baptist church), brushes with the Ku Klux Klan, the emergence of new broadcast media (becoming a DJ on all-black radio station WDIA, where he earned the nickname “Blues Boy”) and consumerism (he wrote jingles for the blood thickener Pep-Ti-Kon).

In the Sixties alone, he saw in social activism – touring alongside his namesake Dr. King, which made for an uncomfortable night’s sleep when an assassin tried to snuff out the latter in their shared Alabama lodgings – and the blues revival that turned upstart white boys like the Beatles and Stones into megastars for doing what he’d been doing all along. The one constant, amid all this change, was the music, and King’s enduring ability to convey through it a sense of where he’d come from, and what he’d seen en route. Bono notes that King “sits down when he’s playing, but he’s moving – moving through air”, which is partly right: he’s striding through history, too, like an R’n’B colossus.

Jon Brewer’s documentary portrait The Life of Riley lays this story out in a broadly conventional fashion: Morgan Freeman – multiple winner of the International Voice of Gravitas competition – narrates, while Brewer assembles his archive footage in strict chronological order. Perhaps aware some of this terrain has already been skilfully covered in the Martin Scorsese-authored series The Blues, Brewer hones in on the personality and the story, relegating the music to sporadic soundtrack filler; he’s also prone to seeking celebrity validation, calling upon John Mayer and Bruce Willis to sing King’s praises, when it’d be better simply to hear King sing.

The Life of Riley is at its most effective when its subject is addressing the camera directly, and telling us some tale or other: describing the circumstances by which he first ended up jamming with Mick ‘n’ Keef, incurred significant tax problems, played in Zaire before the Ali-Foreman fight (itself covered in 2008’s fine concert movie Soul Power) and came to find a whole new audience in collaboration with U2. Throughout, we get a sense of a musician seizing those opportunities denied to his forefathers, some of which have subsequently opened up to a new generation.

Despite its early missteps, it’s a documentary where you gradually come to feel some of the weight of experience King has accumulated over the years, experience which explains why this music has continued to resonate so. You hear it on the spinning 45s Brewer’s camera comes to pan across, in the booming voice and the guitar that sounds like a travelling companion, if not the singer’s only friend in the world, collectively picking over what might and could and possibly should have been. It makes for a very decent record of an extraordinary life.

BB King: The Life of Riley opens in selected cinemas from today.

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