Slamdance 2019: Memphis ’69

A still from Memphis '69.

While Memphis ’69 doesn’t break any new ground in the documentary, there’s nothing wrong with being allowed to just sit back and enjoy the music.

During the late 1960s, the Memphis Country Blues Society held an annual blues festival.  As implied in the film’s title, the concert footage is taken from the June 1969 music festival.  These blues musicians gathered together at the Overton Park Shell for three days in celebration of Memphis’ 150th birthday.  None of them were there for the money because this fest was being put on for free.  Because there was no money being charged for the 800 people in attendance, a hat was passed around in an effort to pay the performers.  Oh, how the times have changed!

The first festival took place in 1966 and organizers promised the best lineup yet for the sesquicentennial celebration.  These performances would also be captured on camera.  The decision to film the concert was the genius idea of Gene Rosenthal.  It certainly helps that his then-Adelphi label had musicians performing during the fest.  While there was a WNET crew on hand, Rosenthal’s ten-person crew would stay the entire time.

Unfortunately, the big delay in getting this concert footage out there to the public is that lack of a demand.  With no demand and film being very expensive to process, passion projects such as this one are seemingly placed on hold.  Yet here it is, some 50 years later finally seeing the light of day thanks to a meeting with Fat Possum Records in 2016.  The way I see it, Memphis ’69 is best viewed as a time capsule.  While these musicians may not be as notable as B.B. King, they were pretty well-known for the era.  Many of the older blues musicians are unfortunately no longer with us.  Though to be fair, I don’t think I’ve heard of a single one of them!

Joe and Lisa LaMattina show a lot of care in putting the finished product together.  The two of them realize that this film works best as a concert film.  They don’t go out of their way to add interviews with musicians and we’re all the better because of it.

If there’s any hope, this concert film will lead a younger generation to discover the blues.  After all, we do not get any rock and roll without blues music paving the way.  While Son Thomas covers Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” during the fest, many of us are likely familiar with Eric Clapton’s cover.  Regardless of which, it’s very hard to watch this film without wanting to dance along to the music.

While there’s nothing truly earth-shattering in watching Memphis ’69, a CD companion featuring the performances from the Memphis Country Blues Music Festival would be highly recommended.

DIRECTOR:  Joe LaMattina
FEATURING:  Rufus Thomas & The Bar-Kays, Bukka White, Nathan Beauregard, Sleepy John Estes & Yank Rachel, Jo Ann Kelly & “Backwards” Sam Firk, Son Thomas, Lum Guffin, Rev. Robert Wilkins & Family, John Fahey, Jefferson Street Jug Band, Insect Trust, John D. Loudermilk, Furry Lewis, Piano Red, Moloch, Johnny Winter, The Salem Harmonizers, Mississippi Fred McDowell

Memphis ’69 screens during the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival in the Documentary Features program. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.