B.B. King – The Life Of Riley (2014)

by | Aug 2, 2014 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

B.B. King – The Life Of Riley (2014)

Cast: B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Ron Wood, Carlos Santana, Bono, Derek Trucks, Bobby Bland, President Obama, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Dr. John, Leon Russell, John Mayall, Buddy Guy, Bill Cosby and many others
Narration: Morgan Freeman
Studio: MVD Visual/Emperor Media MVD6345D
Director: Jon Brewer
Video: 16×9 color/ black & white
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: None
Length: 119 minutes
Rating: Audio: ****                  Video: ****

There have been many documentaries about the blues. Most concentrate on the link to modern idioms like r&b, rock and roll, jazz and soul. Among the legends of blues is Riley B. King, universally known as B.B. His Mississippi-Delta roots formed a musical heritage that defined his life. No one blues performer has carried this torch like King. With a staggering 15 Grammys, he is a legend. Of greater importance is his influence on popular music. When “The Thrill Is Gone” was released in 1971, it had an unprecedented crossover success. Interest in blues music rose significantly (beyond the curiosity levels of discovering who the British rock groups were emulating). But like most Southern blues artists, the pathos that shaped B.B. King was somewhat overlooked.

B.B. King – The Life Of Riley is a significant step toward setting the record straight. In this revealing heart-wrenching (and at times uplifting) film, the career of this musical icon is traced. Starting with his Mississippi childhood steeped in racism (especially a story about an African-American boy who was castrated and hung for talking to a white woman) and labor abuse (made to work in a cotton field at the age of seven), the story unfolds about the sorrow that is at the very core of blues. King learned his craft, eventually playing gigs and working at a radio station in Memphis. This segment detailing the music scene in Memphis is fascinating. All of the anecdotal stories paint a vibrant portrait of early blues music. This documentary is narrarated by actor and fellow Mississippi native Morgan Freeman, but there is a significant contribution by King (past and present) with poignant insights provided by his circle of family and friends.

Needless to say, there is a veritable army of musicians offering praise and thanks to B.B. The sheer volume of these testimonials speaks to his prominence. There is a segment with the various members of The Rolling Stones (who took him on tour in 1969), and great interviews with Buddy Guy and Leon Russell. The irony of white rock musicians achieving fame and fortune on blues music is not lost in the story. There are some vintage snippets of King performing (not enough), and a deserving one of T Bone Walker. The guitar virtuosity and vocal prowess is always on display. More importantly, King developed a signature sound that is recognized around the world. He is 89 years old and still performs!

The overall film quality is first-rate. The images are crisp (the restoration of the black & white footage and old photographs is impressive). Also, the sound quality is excellent. All of the interviews are intelligible. B.B. King – The Life Of Riley has set a new standard for blues documentaries.

—Robbie Gerson

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