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The Search For Robert Johnson - Digital Classics DVD
Directed by Chris Hunt

Reviewed by David Atkinson, Aug 2006

"From the DVD blurb: "For decades little was known about bluesman Robert Johnson. Legend was rife with supernatural accounts of his life and his pact with the devil, and conflicting versions of his death. Drawing upon the research of blues scholars Mack McCormack and Gayle Dean Wardlow, this film uncovers the truth about this man whose life was shrouded in mystery.

"Documentary footage, interviews, and music tell the story of Johnson who, according to folklore, sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. Fellow bluesmen Johnny Shines, David 'Honeyboy' Edwards and Eric Clapton give interviews, as does Johnson's girlfriend Willie Mae Powell – the inspiration behind 'Love in Vain'. Narrator John Hammond Jr. heads up the search for this truth behind the elusive spirit – crisscrossing the Delta, speaking to the man claiming to be Johnson's long-lost son, visiting the sites of Johnson’s only two recording sessions, and finally investigating the circumstances of Johnson’s grisly murder in 1938.

"This film features extensive re-mastered original Robert Johnson recordings, as well as specially-filmed performance footage from Johnny Shines, David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards and John Hammond Jr."

You all know the story in one form or another; poor soul sells his soul at the crossroads, plays guitar like nobody’s business, dies in mysterious circumstances and influences the course of popular (and unpopular) music forever. Robert Johnson seems to be 'The Blues' personified and his legend has a life of his own. Yet in spite of his seminal recordings very little is actually known about him…

Scholarly muso John Hammond attempts to find out on In Search Of Robert Johnson, recently re-released on DVD. This hour-long documentary takes us from his family home to numerous burial sites and many places in between. Containing interviews with peers such as Johnny Shines and Honeyboy Edwards, old girlfriends and apparent descendents, it paints as detailed a picture as you’re ever likely to get of this itinerant musician in rural Mississippi in the 1920s &1930s.

Personal highlights for me included old girlfriend Ella Mae hearing his recordings for the first time, songs he used to play for her, and also learning of the events that apparently pushed him towards aligning himself with devil, which really charged his second recording session. It addresses a few well-known stories about him and events in his life; the little details, though sparse, help dispel the myths and reveal that he was really just a young guy trying to make his way.

This is an entertaining and informative film and Hammond's performances are fitting rather than cheesy. He's perhaps one of the finer exponents of Johnson's canon so these simply enhance the experience. I was a little disappointed at the slightly short running time but it is mercifully free of padding and irrelevancies. If you couldn't muster the three million quid or so to buy his guitar, I suggest you pick up this DVD. Highly recommended.