There are two moments in Feel Like Going Home -- the inaugural episode of the seven-part series The Blues -- in which the themes director Martin Scorsese and host Corey Harris are exploring jump from the screen. In one scene, bluesman Taj Mahal is playing Muddy Waters' "Catfish Blues" on the Mississippi plantation where Waters grew up. Scorsese skillfully fades the song into Waters' version of "Rolling Stone" as Scorsese points out how the recording led Waters to leave the Jim Crow South for Chicago. It was a move that led to Waters taking the blues to the whole world.
Later in the film, Scorsese's camera follows Harris to Mali in West Africa to visit musician Ali Farka Toure. Scorsese uses the same technique of segueing from the one-chord drones of John Lee Hooker to Toure playing guitar, and it all sounds like the same song. In an effective, visceral manner, Scorsese and Harris consistently weave the thread through a culture's past, present and future by illustrating the vast interconnectedness of the blues.
By tracing the history of the blues back past Jim Crow, sharecropping and slavery across the ocean to Africa, Scorsese reiterates some of the overused blues mantras. But it's worth the trip; once in Africa, he allows the musicians to share a unique perspective on the blues from across the Atlantic. Scorsese, whose The Last Waltz is considered one of the best live-music documentaries ever, also makes room for varied opinions about the blues. This is but one way of sparing the viewer of monolithic and dogmatic pronouncements about the genre, a trap that Ken Burns' jazz documentary didn't avoid.
Scorsese's guide in the film is the musician and former New Orleans resident Corey Harris, who seems surprisingly comfortable in his role; he's equally at home playing his guitar or interviewing other musicians whether in the United States or Africa. His keen sense of what the blues means to himself and other musicians, our nation, and the world at large shows that Scorsese's more personalized approach to this musical form was a perfect decision.
The film moves from Harris' journeys finding musicians in the South to archival footage of work gangs, fife and drum parades, and footage of musicians such as Son House and Muddy Waters. Later, an interview with Johnny Shines, who traveled with the legendary Robert Johnson in the 1930s, sheds more light on the blues' most iconic and mysterious figure. In another segment, Harris also interviews Taj Mahal, who started playing in the 1960s during the folk blues revival and is a connection between the early part of the century through the '60s on to today. Mahal offers a simple yet deep analysis of how rural life and Mississippi social conditions led to the blues, and how the blues captured that life in its lyrics and rhythms.
Then Scorsese takes the film to the place where the African roots of the music are most apparent, the North Mississippi hill country where the late cane flute player Othar Turner made his home. A sequence with Turner and Harris playing on Turner's porch and talking about Turner's music and how he learned it are among the most profound moments in the entire film.
When Scorsese and Harris travel to Mali to visit with such musicians as Salif Keite, Habib Koite, Toumani Diabate, and Ali Farka Toure (many of whom have played in New Orleans over the past decade), Feel Like Going Home seems to hit its stride. Diabate's ancestors were the griots (or holders of stories and histories) for the Mandinka empire several centuries before, and Diabate and Harris compare the griots in Africa and the descendents of slaves across the ocean. With amazement, Harris notes the survival not just of human life but a cultural form as men, women and children spent several months in the dank hold of a slave ship. "I'm a strong man," Harris says, "but I'm not that strong. I'm sure many people went crazy and died. It's a miracle we made it that far."
- Director Martin Scorsese launches his executive- produced series The Blues with his own impressive work, Feel Like Going Home.