"Lightning in a Bottle" chronicles the once-in-a-lifetime "Salute to the Blues" benefit concert that took place on February 7, 2003, at New York's Radio City Music Hall. The all-star evening featured blues royalty like Buddy Guy and B.B. King and newer stars like India Arie and Macy Gray. The film is a geographical as well as musical journey, starting with African music, then working its way up the Mississippi Delta to the Memphis and Chicago styles of the blues. Every step offers musical rewards, especially in songs performed by the real old-timers, who've survived to tell their stories with poignancy and pride.
Fuqua, former music video maestro and director of such disposable entertainments as "Tears of the Sun" and "King Arthur," plays a visual card we haven't seen from him before: Showing restraint and respect, he keeps camera moves simple and isn't afraid of long, lingering close-ups that accentuate every line and wrinkle on the wonderful faces of these sometimes haggard-looking musical pioneers.
Highlights are too numerous to mention, but include Mavis Staples, Natalie Cole and Ruth Brown's joyous take on "Men are Like Streetcars"; 89-year-old David "Honeyboy" Edwards tackling "Gamblin' Man"; Solomon Burke, with his regal bulk and commanding voice, tearing into "Turn on Your Love Light"; and the great Buddy Guy interpreting Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" and "Voodoo Child." Also strong are old pros like Bonnie Raitt ("Coming Home"), Robert Cray ("I Pity the Fool") and John Fogerty ("Midnight Special").
Newer artists are hit-and-miss. Macy Gray is always a sexy and spicy live performer, but her purple outfit and outlandish persona seem opposite to the raw and simple power of the best blues. And Chuck D, one of rap's most intelligent and politically aware practitioners, puts a Bush-bashing slant on John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" that undercuts the film's timelessness (although it's good to be reminded that not every young African-American musical superstar wants to "get rich or die trying").
While the music (and Fuqua's directing of it) is beyond reproach, the helmer does struggle to find the perfect balance between performances, concert rehearsals, backstage banter, archive footage, blues history and background on selected artists. It's an unenviable juggling act and Fuqua handles it smoothly, but a couple more stories (like Solomon Burke's tale of playing a '60s-era KKK rally) would have goosed the emotion quotient. Fuqua also threatens to take the viewer out of the movie by going full-screen with racially charged stills that are projected behind the performers. While no one doubts the power of these stills, India Arie's young and soulful presence does more to strengthen her interpretation of Billie Holliday's anti-lynching classic "Strange Fruit" ("Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh/And the sudden smell of burning flesh") than a disturbing photograph thrown in one's face. Still, such concerns become increasingly insignificant as each artist takes the stage.
With its multitude of performances and snippets of background and banter, "Lightning in a Bottle" serves as a catalyst to a full-blown personal discovery (or re-discovery) of the blues. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go buy the soundtrack. Featuring Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt, Mos Def, Macy Gray and India Arie. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Produced by Alex Gibney. A Sony Pictures Classic release. Documentary. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Running time: 106 min