Film Reviews

Review: ‘I am the Blues’

Hot Docs 2016

Barbara Lynn playing along with Lil’ Buck Sinegal
Courtesy of Hot Docs

I Am the Blues
(Canada, 106 min.)
Dir. Daniel Cross
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)

Contemporary musicians respect the origins of black American music—jazz, blues, soul, etc.—-but there’s a giant gap between the lifestyles of stars like Jay Z and roots musicians. When they were starting out, some of the elderly bluesmen who appear in I Am the Blues would get sandwiches in the juke joints they worked and sell them to make a few bucks. Renowned doc producer Daniel Cross’s first directorial effort in ten years lovingly depicts humble but spiritually rich musicians who won’t stop playing until infirmity or death strikes.

Cross brings us in close to classic roots players like Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Bobby Rush, and Barbara Lynn. Throughout his elegantly shot, sun-dappled movie, he lingers on the bayous, bars, churches, and backyards that nurtured the music, suggesting that it was an inevitable part of the landscape.

As the musicians talk, I Am the Blues works as an oral history of their music, and of the still active Chitlin’ Circuit of performing venues, where back in the wickedness of segregation, African Americans felt free of danger. We hear stories about Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and other big names who had played with the musicians profiled in the film. We get privileged insight into the creative process when two of the bluesmen work out a tune.

All black music, from blues and r&b to hip-hop, reggae, and dancehall is about release into ecstatic freedom. The blues made me, says one of the characters in the doc, “sing me back home before I die.” I Am the Blues evokes that sentiment in an authentic manner befitting its subject.

I am the Blues screens:
-Monday, May 2 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 4:00 PM
-Wednesday, May 4 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 10:45 AM
-Saturday, May 7 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 3:45 PM

Please visit the POV Hot Docs hub for more coverage on this year’s festival.

Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit for more information.

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

View all articles by Maurie Alioff »