Wenders Documentary Explores ‘The Soul of a Man’

Blind Willie Johnson once said, “The blues are the roots; everything else is the fruits.” These roots extend into the depths of the souls of three men in Wim Wenders’s The Soul of a Man: Dixon, Skip James, and J.B. Lenoir

The Soul of a Man is the second episode of The Blues: A Musical Journey, which is executive produced by Martin Scorsese (Scorsese directed the first episode in the series, Feel Like Going Home). The series aired on PBS in fall 2003, and this film is now available on DVD.

Wenders is no stranger to using American music in his films, nor is he a stranger to documentary filmmaking. Probably his best known intersection of music and film is 1999’s Buena Vista Social Club, wherein he showcases the talents of Afro-Cuban greats such as the late Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez, along with Ry Cooder.

The Soul of a Man offers an ambitious combination of reenactments, contemporary performances, archival footage, interviews, and voiceover narration to explore the lives of Johnson, James, and Lenoir. While this might seem a little much stylistically, it actually works – and quite well.

The film opens with a view of the earth from space – not quite where you’d expect a film about the blues to begin. Archival shots show the launch of a rocket and the release of Voyager into space. The voiceover narration, done quite smoothly by Laurence Fishburne, informs us that a song by Blind Willie Johnson is aboard that vessel as an example of American music. That song is “Dark Was the Night,” which Johnson recorded in 1927. Fishburne calls himself Johnson, giving a human identity to the omniscient narration, which often accompanies the shots of the earth and space throughout the film. Johnson then becomes our guide from above.

The film begins with the reenacted story of Blind Willie Johnson. Contemporary blues musician Chris Thomas King portrays Johnson in the visuals while Fishburne’s narration tells Johnson’s story. Dixon sits on a porch, playing the guitar and singing, a bucket at his side. People pass by and put change in the bucket as “Dark Was the Night” continues on the soundtrack. But it is not King singing the song; Wenders lets Johnson’s own music speak for itself.

Wenders attempts to invoke an early cinema feel with his visual style in these reenactments. Almost all of the shots are in black and white, and a couple have a sepia tone to them. Editing transitions, particularly the iris, also contribute to this period feel. The scratchy recordings make them seem all the more “real.”

As King pantomimes the song, a cut takes us to a full-color shot of Marc Ribot singing “Dark Was the Night” while strumming a guitar in a studio or small stage. The shots jump around as Ribot plays, moving closer to his face and his fretwork as he continues.

From here, the narration tells more of Johnson’s story: He was born around 1900 in Marlon, Texas. He was blinded at age 7 when his step-mother threw lye in his face to avenge a beating his father had given her. He talks about God becoming a key factor in his life, about teaching himself the guitar, and about performing on street corners and churches, while not caring for recording much. As the song “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” begins to play, archival shots of African Americans picking cotton and plowing in the fields appear. The scene also goes back to King performing on a porch. The song “John the Revelator” then plays, this time accompanied by shots of prohibition and the madness that ensued as a result.

The film then moves along to tell the story of Nehemiah James, also known as “Skippy” or better “Skip,” “because he never stayed anywhere for long.” Like Dixon, James is portrayed by an actor (Keith Brown) as the narration tells his story. James wins a blues contest in Mississippi and travels to Wisconsin by train to record with Paramount Records. An old-fashioned looking intertitle appears, reading, “GRAFTON, WISCONSIN!”, thus announcing James’s arrival there.

The film uses its reenactments of those recording sessions to introduce several songs by James, including “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” “Illinois Blues, “Devil Got my Woman,” and “The Cherry Ball Blues.” No reenactment of a song is shown without interruption. “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” is intercut with archival footage of a caravan of African American families along Highway 61 and a man shouting about their near hopeless existence. Other interruptions follow the pattern established before, with contemporary singers such as Lucinda Williams, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Bonnie Raitt, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (whose name perfectly describes the jarring nature of this cut), Lou Reed, and Beck. Each covers a James song for a few lines or a chorus, and then the film returns to the reenactment.

James never saw a dime from those recording sessions and he never heard his own recordings. The Depression hit and hard, and audiences turned to radio for free music and Paramount Records folded. A reenactment session attempts to show how James moved away from the blues and toward the church, with him singing “Cypress Grove Blues” first and then “He is a Mighty Good Leader” next. Through another intertitle, the crowd wonders why James performs a spiritual while the narration says he became a Baptist minister, like his father. And with that, James disappeared.

A shot in England in full color brings us to the 1960s. The soundtrack does as well, with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers singing “The Death of J.B. Lenoir.” It is this song that first interested Wenders in J.B. Lenoir and his work. To help in telling his story, Wenders found Steve and Ronnog Seaberg, who made two short films about Lenoir. For most of this segment, the film intercuts between interviews with the Seabergs and their footage. Of course, covers by modern performers continue to punctuate the songs.

Steven and Ronnog Seaberg were two art students in the 1960s who took an interest in Lenoir and his work. At the time they had hoped to make a documentary for Swedish television. According to them, Lenoir was only too happy to tell them about when and where he was performing. Steve talks about one performance on “The Jubilee Hour,” with Lenoir accompanying a gospel singer, and file footage shows the performance he references. They also talk about his style of dress, which included tuxedo-type jackets in tails in black, white, chartreuse, gold, and zebra stripes.

Their footage features a generous performances by Lenoir, including “I Feel So Good,” “I’ve Been Down So Long,” “Everything I Do,” “I Want to Go,” and “Round and Round.” Though the unique jackets (not to mention the red socks) suggest something about Lenoir’s personality, the performance footage really shows just how much Lenoir enjoyed what he was doing. Unlike the reenactments, here we see a blues man cutting loose and having fun.

With the quality of the archival footage, the contemporary performers’ intercut becomes more of an interruption or a distraction than an enhancement. Performances here include Raitt again (whose cover of “Round and Round” seems too sedate when compared to Lenoir’s version in the archival footage – the song was inspired by his daughter’s dancing, after all), The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Los Lobos, Shemekia Copeland, T-Bone Burnett, and Cassandra Wilson.

The Seabergs talk about how Lenoir’s music differed from typical blues. For one, Lenoir freely mixed spirituality with his lyrics, which we hear in “God is Word.” For another, Lenoir addressed the social issues prevalent in the 1960s, such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the women’s movement.

But what became of the missing Skip James? John Waterman tells the story. James was found in a hospital and was brought to the Newport Festival in 1964. He played there, but according to Waterman, a photographer who captured that moment on film, the (mostly white) audience didn’t know what they were witnessing and no contract resulted from his performance there. James was dying of cancer at the time, and Cream’s 1968 cover of “I’m So Glad” paid off the medical bills.

It is here the film begins to wind down its telling of both Lenoir and James through a brief sequence that connects the music with the issues of the times. With a cover of “Vietnam Blues,” Cassandra Wilson sings while shots of bombs dropping and the wounded being carried by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam appear. While Lenoir sings “Alabama Blues,” shots of the march on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. accompany it; King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is added to the soundtrack as well.

Fishburne’s voiceover tells us J.B. Lenoir died in a Champaign, Illinois, hospital because the people on staff failed to see his injuries as serious. Lenoir was a dishwasher at the time of his death on April 29, 1967. Skip James died of cancer on October 3, 1969, in Philadelphia.

While The Soul of a Man incorporates a wide variety of techniques and materials, the film still is balanced in its composition and arrangement of them. Almost nothing is overdone. The reenactments invoke the period and functionally recreate scenes not available, and the subtle references to silent film, with the iris transition and the intertitles, contribute to their constructed realism. The voiceover introduces and concludes segments but doesn’t overwhelm or annoy as this device can sometimes do.

The real wealth of this piece comes in the archival footage and the quality of the performances therein. The discovery of the Seabergs’ work is a genuine find, as it shows J.B. Lenoir as both an amazing person and an amazing performer. The European television footage and the Newport festival footage offer the few available records of Skip James performing as well.

Only two parts of the film seem misfits within the overall piece. First, the contemporary performances still puzzle me. While the representation of different performers is impressive, I have to wonder, why are they there? For the most part, they sing or play a few bars and that is all. Reed covers a song with the sheet music on a stand in front of him. Are these performances meant to show the songs’ lasting influence or to ease the connection to the music for the modern audience?

Second, the intercutting of archival footage with the performances at times becomes a bit much. The footage refers to major historical events in the United States: prohibition, the Depression, and the Vietnam War. It also refers to the racial tensions and racism through the Ku Klux Klan, the poverty of the Depression, the labor in the cotton fields, and the Civil Rights movement with King and the protests. But with such an intense focus on Johnson, James, and Lenoir and their lives, and with the seriousness and significance that these issues carry, the archival footage isn’t quite enough to make those social connections work.

It could be that the performances and the footage attempt to deal with the dilemma of what to show with the music. For some, the purity of the performance itself is not quite enough to compel them to keep watching, but this is a convention seen in concert films made as far back as the 1960s.

Overall, though, The Soul of a Man brings us to the roots of these men and their music, showing just how much Johnson, James, and Lenoir contributed to the growing legacy of the blues.

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