"Whether itís Al Green at his Memphis church, Junior Kimbrough at his Mississippi juke joint, or Nathan Williams at El Sid-Oís in Lafayette, Louisiana, thereís nothing like capturing great musicians in front of their own crowd, in the places where the music they play came from," says filmmaker Robert Mugge. "Itís not the same as filming them in front of a white university audience in Cambridge."
Mugge should know. Heís made a career of getting the beating heart of great American roots music at its most soulful and authentic on film. From an early career as the owner of a head shop that doubled as an art-film theater and performance space, he transitioned to lively documentary filmmaking with a 1976 profile of composer George Crumb. Today his well-respected résumé includes Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, the Gil Scott-Heron film Black Wax; Cool Runnings: The Reggae Movie, which covers the 1983 Jamaican Sunsplash Festival; documentaries about Sonny Rollins and Rubén Blades; and his two best-known works, 1984ís The Gospel According to Al Green and 1991ís Deep Blues.
Three of Muggeís films form the cornerstone of the Museum of Fine Artsí summer-long blues festival. It begins this Saturday with Rhythm íní Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music (which screens again this Wednesday) and continues on August 9 with his latest work, Last of the Mississippi Jukes ó both Boston-area premieres. The series closes with Deep Blues, his Mississippi-blues investigation with the late journalist and musician Robert Palmer, on August 24. (The festival also includes live performances by zydeco artist Rosie Ledet following the July 9 showing of Rhythm íní Bayous; cutting-edge bluesman Corey Harris on July 30; and the inimitable chitlin-circuit soul-blues entertainer Bobby Rush following Last of the Mississippi Jukes.)
"This is a great way to commemorate the 20th year of our Concerts in the Courtyard series," says MFA film-series curator Bo Smith. "Also, Iíve worked with Bob Mugge for a long time, and without question he has risen to the top among great filmographers of music."
For Mugge, thatís the result of a life-long love affair with American roots music, which has compelled him to track it to its sources and lured him farther with each film. Both of his latest movies are direct outgrowths of earlier works. He had just finishing shooting 1999ís Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when he learned that the curator whoíd organized the Hallís examination of the bluesmanís legend was about to lead a tour through the fertile grounds of Louisianaís music scene. So Mugge and his camera went along and, with the help of a grant from the state, explored every nook of its living musical legacy for Rhythm íní Bayous.
And his Deep Blues experiences led to Last of the Mississippi Jukes. "Making that film with Robert Palmer was life-changing," he says. "What we tried to say with Deep Blues is that the blues is very much alive in the place where it began, and you can still hear the real thing in its rawest and most honest form. Over subsequent years, I was drawn back to Mississippi, and I became increasingly alarmed that the jukes were disappearing. My plan with this film was to capture the last vestiges of what was happening in the jukes across the state. I couldnít raise enough money for that, so the Subway club in Jackson became our focal point while we also tried to present as much background about jukes as we could."
Although Muggeís new film does an excellent job of capturing the proud culture of the remaining juke joints, he may yet get a chance to shoot in down-home clubs throughout Mississippi. Heís about to enter a new chapter of his career as a full-time employee of Mississippi Educational Television, which has put its state-of-the-art cameras at his disposal.
Rhythm íní Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music screens this Saturday July 5, at 3:45 p.m. (tickets are $8) and this Wednesday, July 9, at 5:45 p.m., the latter showing to be followed by a performance by Rosie Ledet (tickets $24 for the concert, $28 for the concert and film), at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue. Call (617) 369-3306.