Grade: B-Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? (1997)

Director: Peter Meyer

Stars: Keb Mo', Robert Lockwood Jr., Robert Cray

Release Company: WinStar Entertainment

MPAA Rating: NR

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Can't You Hear the Wind Howl?


Robert Johnson at the Crossroads
Robert Johnson at...
Arno Van
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Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived...I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice, really...

Eric Clapton
Splice together any semblance of biography about a blues legend while including significant cuts of the music, and you'll have a decent documentary, elevated by the quality of real music. Such is the case with Can't You Hear the Wind Howl?, a competent portrait of the legendary Robert Johnson, containing no more information than you can read from the box set of his complete works, but that's to be expected. To do more would venture into fiction. Like true blues songs themselves, only tidbits of his life have been passed down orally by a few family members and childhood friends, and he died far too soon of ambiguous causes that are also surrounded in mystery. Even his half-sister, Carrie Spencer, was kept in the dark about the details: "Mama and them didn't want to tell me about Robert bein' poisoned. They knew it'd hurt me so."

Blues fans will be pleased that a number of Johnson's recordings are interwoven into the documentary and provide a better tribute than the official Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame associated tribute concert turned into a documentary called Hellhounds on My Tail that incorporates Johnson's songs recorded by various blues artists and talking head interviews. Narrating on and off screen, Danny Glover provides much of the biographical information with sufficient enthusiasm. Unfortunately, no actual footage of Johnson is possible, so his visual appearance relies on the photograph that appears ubiquitously on every T-shirt and recording associated with him, often with the camera zooming in on his trademark long, slender fingers that give the auditory illusion that Johnson performs duets with himself on "Terraplane Blues."

To substitute for the lack of Johnson footage, Keb Mo' capably performs in grainy black and white reenactments—the signature moments of his life, including his first Texas recording session, his death, and his now mythological meeting, "At the Crossroads." In case you haven't heard, Johnson is among the most famous blues players who supposedly met the Devil at the Crossroads at midnight to gain his superhuman guitar playing abilities. Graphically, the documentary shows how the aspiring blues player refrains from looking at the Devil as he plucks the guitar from his hands and tunes it. Accepting the guitar back signifies the contract, and the bluesman now can play music that touches souls.

Johnson actually encouraged this legend, given credence from those who knew how badly he once played. Son House once scolded Johnson not to play the guitar because he was driving people nuts, but a short six months later House could only stare in disbelief at the young man's genius. Had the film been made several years earlier, it would have been great to hear Son House describe those days, but at least archive footage snippets are included. Giving more life and authenticity to the biographical information are interviews with childhood friends and relatives: Johnny Shines (who saw and played with Johnson), and Robert Lockwood Jr. (Johnson's common-law stepson).

Eventually every aspiring guitar god comes to revere Robert Johnson. Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life and Music of Robert Johnson alludes to this sufficiently with gushing statements from Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Cray, and John Hammond. Rediscovered by many blues based rock guitarists from the 60s, Johnson's complete recordings still weren't readily available until 1990, and guitar enthusiasts shocked record company executives when Johnson's box set hit the list of best sellers.

Once packaged with the tribute concert DVD, this 77-minute documentary remains worthwhile for blues aficionados who thirst for any authentic material and already realize that the definitive word on Johnson lies in the auditory world of that box set of his complete recordings. Of course, those fans are also planning a pilgrimage to Johnson's Hazelhurst birthplace and Mississippi Delta region. No documentary or recording can be complete unless you feel his soulful cries too—but perhaps that will require your own journey to the Crossroads.

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