Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Howlin’ Wolf Story - Flawed Documentary on Blues Legend

A movie documentary, The Howlin’ Wolf Story, on the legendary blues performer, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf’ Burnett has also been issued on DVD as part of Bluebird The Secret History of Rock & Roll series. The DVD claims to include 30 minutes of additional footage that was not in the theatrical release, although any such release must have been highly limited. 

This documentary brings together some very rare television performance clips of the Wolf. It contains the recollections of his former sidemen Hubert Sumlin, Jody Williams, and Sam Lay, the late Sam Phillips who was the first to record Wolf, legendary rockabilly guitarist Paul Burlison (remembering Wolf from when they had programs on the same West Memphis radio station), bluesman Billy Boy Arnold, Wolf’s two daughters, Bob Koester, Mark Hoffman (one of the authors of the forthcoming Wolf Biography) , music writer, Robert Gordon and Dick Shurman, blues writer and record producer. The film traces Wolf's career from growing up in the delta to his last days in Chicago. One gets a sense of the real person. We get to know about Wolf the family man as well as the powerful, almost feral, stage performer. The high points are the performance clips and one understands the incredible presence he had on stage. 

This is not a perfect film. I could have done without watching Wolf’s recording of Smokestack Lightning used essentially as a soundtrack for some vintage train footage. One wonders why other former Wolf sidemen like Detroit Jr., Henry Gray and Eddie Shaw were not included in remembering Wolf. As far as the DVD presentation of the materials, it is unfortunate that one could not also have viewed the performances separate from the film as an additional feature. It also would have been helpful to have the movie chaptered from the DVD menu to make navigating it a little bit easier. 

There are some extras including Sam Lay’s home movies and interview segments an a live audio of Wolf performance. Still this DVD is well worth it if for no other reason than to watch Wolf perform. Despite its flaws, I still recommend this movie. 

This review originally appeared in the December 2003 - January 2004 DC Blues Calendar. I believe I may have purchased this.

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