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Director Tours Mississippi Blues

2 May, 2003 By: Jessica Wolf

In an official proclamation making 2003 “The Year of the Blues,” the U.S. Congress called the blues “a national historic treasure, which needs to be preserved, studied and documented for future generations.”

For director Robert Mugge, delving deep into the history and disintegrating state of blues joints in the Mississippi Delta with his musical documentary Last of the Mississippi Jukes was a way to take his love of music, of filmmaking and of American subcultures and turn it into not only a preservation but a product mass audiences could get excited about.

“There are just these great cultural riches in various parts of the country that if you don't visit those regions, you don't know,” Mugge said. “What I try to do with my films is go into these American subcultures and focus on these different types of music. I've been doing that for more than 25 years with a whole variety of racial and ethnic subcultures.”

Mugge has made films on bluegrass, blues, jazz, Hawaiian music and more.

The idea for Last of the Mississippi Jukes came when Mugge was filming Deep Blues in the early 1990s, which looked at the modern Mississippi blues scene.

“Over the next decade, as I would go back to the state, I noticed that things were changing, that a lot of the juke joints were closing, that a lot of the older musicians were dying off,” Mugge said. “I realized that I needed to do at least one more film on this scene down in Mississippi to capture the last vestige of this culture before it all faded away. Really, the blues have been so important to American society. It really laid the foundation for what we think of as American music.”

Last of the Mississippi Jukes streeted on DVD in March from Sanctuary Records. The film also aired on the Black Starz! cable network early in March.

The movie features footage of Mississippi blues musicians performing on their home turf, as well as interviews with musical archivists and state and city officials.

Much of the film focuses on the Subway Lounge, an endangered fixture in the Mississippi blues scene. Situated in the basement of the historic, but crumbling, Summers Hotel in Jackson, Miss. -- the city's first African-American-owned hotel. In the days of segregation, it hosted jazz, blues and soul legends like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, James Brown and Aretha Franklin.

Actor Morgan Freeman participated in the documentary, having opened the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss. Freeman talks about his personal love of the blues and about the care that went into opening his club in the blues Mecca of Mississippi. Having such a high-profile star as part of his documentary was definitely a bonus, Mugge said.

“Morgan Freeman and his partners had been trying to sort of duplicate what juke joints had been over the last hundred years, so we thought, ‘We'll go to Ground Zero to let them help explain to us the importance of this scene,’ he said.

Mugge said the success of similar projects -- such as Buena Vista Social Club, which brought Cuba's lush music scene to life -- is good for everyone: current and aspiring filmmakers, musicians, the market and audiences.

And DVD helps make it all happen, he said.

“Traditionally, as a filmmaker you would make a film and that would be it. There would be this finite period of time to the project, there would be this one work, this final work that would be the result, and you'd always end up sad that all this wonderful material would wind up on the cutting room floor,” he said. “But because of DVD, there's room not just for a high-quality copy of the work itself but for various sorts of soundtracks -- two-track stereo, surround, DTS, all that. And then you can go add all these outtakes, additional stuff you couldn't fit into the film, all to show a larger context.”

And for anyone in the music game, the key is to keep that standard high, Mugge said.

“Being able to add nice packaging and added material helps a little to combat this looming industry of pirated music -- and, now, film,” he said. “You need to be able to have a product that can compete with what people can trade for free on the Internet.”

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