Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet
B.B. King: The Life of Riley
Directed by Jon Brewer
Emperor / Cardinal Releasing
119 minutes, 2012 / 2014
First some housekeeping: so in case you didn’t already know, blues legend extraordinaire B.B. King was born Riley King, hence the name of the documentary about his life. While a young’n in Mississippi and Tennessee, he became known as Blues Boy King, which led to his better known shortened moniker. While his name has undergone a couple of changes, all his guitars share a similar one: Lucille.
Okay, now back to our show. The film opens up with a short, terse clip of Bill Cosby (how’s that for timing?) describing what it was like to be Black and to live in the Deep South pre-1960s. Along with his ruined reputation, Cosby has spent much of his life and career heralding the Blues genre, especially the Northern, electric variety.
Before the introduction of King the Man, we are given another brief intro to what the Blues means, and what King has brought to the Blues. Pointing in that direction are the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, John Mayall, Aaron Neville and Eric Clapton.
Though King was born into the more traditional acoustic sounds of the Delta, he would move north to Chicago and become the father of the electric Blues, and the touchstone for nearly every ‘60s classic rock band that followed. Hit records on the R&B charts and near-constant touring during his 90 years-plus on this earth [b. 1925] has made him a legend, an originator, and a man with whom to be reckoned.
The film follows his life chronologically and in sharp detail, interviewing many of his elderly relatives that certainly must be near the centennial mark, talking about how B.B. was a kid when they met him. While the story follows his trajectory, there is a mix of media of B.B. at different stages of his life, talking about those days, mostly taken from various interviews from television through the decades. Mixed in with these are some b-roll films and stills from the period of poor workers and kids, and the occasional historical re-creation (e.g., clips of a young “B.B.” walking down the road with a guitar, or hitching to Memphis).
One chilling part, especially considering the U.S. politics as the moment, is the discussion of living in the Deep South under the watchful and vengeful hand of the KKK (Mississippi Goddamn, for real). This section is both about King, and the culture in which he lived and grew into adulthood.
Because much of this follows his life’s history line, we get to see the inexperienced youth he started out to be, and follows through to fame. His rise came in spurts, each one jetting him up the ladder and bringing him further notoriety. For example, his recording career started as a jingle writer – and then DJ – for the first black radio station in Memphis, WDIA (where he officially became solidified with the shortened “B.B.”), leading to recording at Sun. A contract dispute there brings him to Chicago and Chess Records, where he would break into the “Chitlin Circuit” (there is a humorous argument on the film between some musicians and a photographer from the time arguing over the term).
I once had a professor who posited that trends started with the lower classes, was noticed and copied by the rich trying to show how “cool” they were (via appropriation), and then finally reaching the Middle Class, who want to emulate the wealthy. This is certainly true of the Blues, and has certainly had an effect to King’s career. While popular within the Blues audience, he was “discovered” and copied by British musicians such as the aforementioned Clapton and John Mayall, Ronnie Wood, Mick Taylor, Paul Rodgers, Ringo Starr, Bono and Peter Green, all of whom are represented in this film. This brought the sound to American audiences, including musicians John Mayer, Jonny Lang, Susan Tedeschi, Slash, and Joe Walsh. Bonnie Raitt comes right out and states that she learned about the sound from the British Blues.
In fact, King opened for the Stones on one tour, as a brief interview with four of the band (including Keef and Mick), attest. Also included are some clips from the U2 documentary, Rattle and Hum (1988), in which King played with the band.
But it’s not all big-time musicians who have a voice here, as we meet King’s second wife, producers, managers, other Blues musicians, and also some members of his band, which is what I especially enjoyed.
His breakthrough point to mainstream audiences, after being put on the brink by the Brit rockers, was “The Blues Is Gone,” the song that would be forever identified as his. But even so, this is just part of his career as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th (and 21st) century, which is clearly posited – and rightfully so – by this documentary.
The director is Jon Brewer, a Brit who has a history in both rock and rockumentaries, thereby gaining insights from musicians who would have normally been out of scope, such as members of the Stones and U2, which elevate this film into a stratosphere not usually reached by most filmmakers, even if their subject is someone, well, like B.B. King.
But does that make a good documentary? Well, in this case, considering the talent, it probably was important to have that many names to show how loved King is, but personally, I would have liked to hear more of B.B. rather than mostly a parade of stars. The balance is far more to the other musicians than to King, but I guess it is okay considering who those names are, in the long run. Luckily, there is Morgan Freeman to narrate the whole thing, and a lot of B.B. King’s music.
The extras are a number of extended interviews and an 8-minute clip of King live at Albert Hall in his later years, accompanied by the likes of Slash, members of the Stones, and others.
B.B. King passed away in May of 2015. RIP, and thank you for all you have contributed. The world of music would have been a very different place without you.