About a month ago, the Dryden Theater at the George Eastman House showcased a series of films by the prolific filmmaker, Les Blank. Here is a reflection on one of his films, "The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins."
The way in which Les Blank frames his star, blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins, accentuates not just his rustic grit but also his sense of flash which includes his gold-lined teeth and his heavily darkened shades that he can't function without. Indeed, he looks like a retroactive, country-grown rock star. This should not come as a surprise because blues musicians were the first rock and roll stars (rock and roll used anachronistically, of course). Look up the lives of men like Charlie Patton, Son House, and the mythical Robert Johnson and it won't take long to discover how fast and how hard these men lived in the 1920s and 1930s. Their music came out of the roughly paved roads, dirty jook joints, and various cotton fields. It is crucial that Blank focuses just as much time on the town of Centerville, Texas, where Hopkins resides, in relation to the musician, himself. Hopkins and his music provides the texture of an ethnic landscape unobtrusively observed.
"The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins," was made in 1968, a time where the blues as a musical genre was seeing a revival among college students and English bands like The Rolling Stones. Yet, one of the concerns that rose from this revival was the authenticity of the blues itself. Les Blank's short documentary seems to assign itself with the task of illustrating just where this type of music comes from, a worn out socioeconomic condition that almost seems to promote sitting around wailing and jamming. The town of Centerville is filled with colorful characters addicted to the simplistically infectious rhythms of the blues progression and Blank makes sure he captures those intimate moments where people just let themselves loose. One scene shows Hopkins jamming with a harmonica player who is on his knees in the middle of a living room. He wavers back and forth and plays his harmonica as if he was making love to it. Eventually he bursts into passionate vocals. This man exhibits a fundamental trait of blues and blues musicians; he is lost in a bluesy rapture like a possessed preacher. This idea of combining blues and religion, or at least comparing the two, is a common theme throughout all blues (the life of Son House exemplifies that potently) and Hopkins even mentions the similarity between preacher and blues musician in one of his interviews. Another scene has an old man explain the way he dances in a humorous narrative involving trying to get a women. His delight and enthusiasm expresses charm and Blank lets the whole scene play out without abbreviating anything such that the viewer can fully appreciate a unique and fun character.
Les Blank films Hopkins and his town with caring ruggedness. In other words, there seems to be no inclination that what we see has been forcibly glamorized. The interviews with Hopkins are sparse; he ends up performing far more to the viewer's pleasure. In fact, it seems more like an elaborate jam session where any sort of explanation of the blues seems like it is a vocal riff from one of his many songs. It almost goes without saying that you can learn what the blues means by just listening to Hopkins and watching how others react to his music. With this free-flowing aesthetic Blank employs, the viewer is able to see an unabridged scene in a life of a man that many people are unaware of...in a world that many people are unaware of. Although it is a very short, what is within the duration of the film's runtime is something that seems honest and almost interactive for the audience who has the privilege to hear the raspy music that paved the way for all of American popular music. Oh yeah, this music in the film is incredible; something that would continuously compel you to shake your legs or snap your fingers, your choice.