How Not to Make a Documentary

So I've been working my way through my Netflix queue, and this afternoon I watched a film I've had so long that it came with me from California. It's on a subject I absolutely love--Robert Johnson--and the description of it was interesting. The filmmaker traveled through Arkansas and Mississippi, talking to people who actually knew Johnson, trying to uncover some of the mystery that surrounds one of the last legendary figures in American folklore. (I'm using legendary here in the sense of there being actual mystery in the manner of his life, death, and career.)

The film does some interesting things--there are interviews with musicians who were contemporaries of Johnson, like Johnny Shines, and with two women who claim to have been former girlfriends of Johnson, but there's one major problem with the film, and it utterly destroys whatever enjoyability that exists.

It's John Hammond's ego.

At the start of the film, Hammond bills himself as a blues musician and son of noted Jazz writer John Hammond (someone I've become familiar with recently since I've been watching Ken Burns' terrific Jazz series). He seems pretty uncomfortable in front of the camera at the beginning, at least as the narrator and head truth-seeker, but put a guitar in his hands and suddenly he's in a music video. The scenes where he's playing are painfully contrived, especially the scene in Helena, Arkansas where he's ostensibly in a cutting contest with Johnny Shines. There are lots of long shots of Hammond driving down dusty Mississippi roads, and by the end of the film, you can imagine Hammond telling his camera people, "Okay, you set up here at the top of the hill, and I'll drive toward you, and it'll look so cool!"

But what's most painful are the missed opportunities. At one point, Hammond interviews Claude Johnson, a man who claims to be the illegitimate son of Robert Johnson, and Claude's son and grandson are brought into the shot. Hammond has no question to ask, and so we're left with this painfully awkward silence, and three people feeling uncomfortable in front of the camera. Hammond may have felt this was a profound moment--I don't know--but it was horrible to watch.

I'd only recommend the film as a primer for what not to do when making a documentary. I got more out of a five minute segment on Eric Clapton's "Sessions for Robert J" where he's describing what Johnson did musically on a single song and that it's so difficult that Clapton can't copy it himself--he can only approximate--than I did out of this entire film.

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