Dir. Charles Burnett, USA, 2003, 106 mins
Cast: Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Dixon, Lightin Hopkins, Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington
Review by Elizabeth Hyder
Warming by the Devil’s Fire, written and directed by Charles Burnett, is one of seven films in a series (exec-produced by Martin Scorcese) that aims to raise awareness of the blues and of its contribution both to American culture and to worldwide music. Each film has a different director and the brief is to explore the blues through their own personal perspective. Burnett’s previous work (Killer Of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger) isn’t particularly well known in the UK, but when the fellow directors in the series include such luminaries as Wim Wenders, Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis and Scorcese himself, it would be fair to expect something more than the shambolic amateurish film that this is.
Part documentary, part personal story, Warming by the Devil’s Fire tells the story of the blues through a young boy’s eyes in 1956 Mississippi when he goes to visit his wayward uncle. This sounds highly promising, but what we actually get is archive footage of song after song randomly linked by poorly filmed inserts of the young boy and his uncle. There’s lots of voiceover too, mainly by the adult Junior who we never see and therefore have no emotional link to, and this distances us both from the soulful music and the fictional characters.
There’s a continual switching throughout the duration of the film between black and white archive footage and colour scenes representing the ‘now’ of 1956. Yet this in itself is confusing. The archive material is from the same time as Junior and Buddy’s ‘now’ and the disorientating effect is compounded by the bizarrely timed fades from colour to black and white that pepper the film. There’s one particular scene in which this is painfully clunky. Buddy takes Junior to New Orleans and, as he’s explaining to his nephew what the city represents in the world of the blues, a tourist pony trap approaches complete with modern-day tourists staring somewhat bemused at the camera. As if embarrassed by the clash in eras, the colour footage suddenly fades to black and white.
The archive footage in the film is superb and, whilst the sound quality may have faded, the catchy beats and soulful voices are still as powerful as they ever were. A shame then, that the beauty of the music is superseded by the lack of a coherent narrative. There’s not much sense of a chronology behind the music and, with only a brief mention of why the guitar became so popular, by the time the film ends, we’re left none the wiser as to either the background of the blues or a key to its overwhelming popularity. The film claims to explore “intergenerational tensions between the heavenly strains of gospel and the devilish moans of the blues”, but again this is only touched upon.
There’s a peculiar little scene where Junior, tired of his uncle’s womanising, wanders off only to come across a remote and empty church. Upon entering, he suddenly imagines it filled with a large all-singing congregation and a verbally gifted preacher and he starts clapping along to the gospel sounds. However, his fellow church attendees are, once again, black and white footage as is the preacher, and the constant cutting between the colour Junior and black and white singers is jarring. You can’t help but wonder if Burnett ran out of money and couldn’t afford a real dramatic re-enactment and this scene, which should have profound things to say about the competition between gospel and blues, is more embarrassing than it is enlightening.
Burnett has an irritating habit of glossing over items of interest and nowhere is this clearer than in the short scene where a fascinating female singer, Lucille Brogan, is mentioned. Her songs, filled with explicit sexual lyrics and mentions of homosexuality, were hugely popular and inevitably condemned by the less liberal members of society (Eminem anyone?). Burnett gives us a blast of one of her songs that is so short as to be almost incoherent before moving swiftly on to yet another blues singer. It’s almost as if he’s trying to cover the entire breadth of the blues movement by giving is quick tasters of every single singer. In some ways, this is an admirable aim, but the resulting chopping and changing between singers is both wearisome and frustrating leaving us with no real coherent oversight of the genre.
If you’re looking for an interesting movie about the blues, you’d be better off watching the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou than Warming by the Devil’s Fire. The history of the blues and its continuing influence in today’s music is a huge topic and one that anyone would be hard pressed to compact into 90 minutes of film, but Warming by the Devil’s Fire smacks of wasted opportunity. There’s absolutely no way that this deserves a cinematic release and, for those of you who are simply looking to find out a bit more about the blues, you might as well go down to your nearest music store, buy some compilation CDs and read the inserts than see this film.