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August 7th, 2013 12:01 am MATTHEW SINGER | Brew Views

Brew Views: The Music Films of Les Blank

Music that moves.

brewviews_3940(lightninhop)LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS - IMAGE: Les Blank

In 1964’s Dizzie Gillespie, filmmaker Les Blank’s first music-based documentary, the titular giant of jazz trumpet speaks into the camera, attempting to describe his playing style. He has a hard time. He says something about mixing typed notes with slurred ones, and admits, “I’m not conscious of this, because that’s the way I think.” Then he just plays, those iconic bullfrog cheeks puffed near to bursting, and you understand everything. Many of the music films Blank would go on to make—six of which will screen this weekend—follow this same basic tack: He lets the musicians talk, then watches them create. It’s a simple but astoundingly effective formula. Blank, who died earlier this year, was fascinated with the cultures that birth the songs. In The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968) and A Well Spent Life (1971), he follows blues musicians Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb through the rural landscapes that raised them. 1973’s Hot Pepper, about zydeco king Clifton Chenier, travels inside the muggy juke joints of southern Louisiana. Sprout Wings and Fly (1983) goes into Appalachia, and Chulas Fronteras (1976) to the Tex-Mex border. In all of them, Blank forgoes scholarly talking heads and linear biography, capturing his subjects as they live, which is directly linked to how they perform. Most importantly, he stays out of the way. That’s something many of today’s documentarians could learn from.

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