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The Soul of a German Man

The Soul of a German Man

Articles - Directing

Blues legend Skip James died in 1969, jaded
by what he called “the music racket.”

The irascible Ma Rainey once
claimed that white folks just didn’t understand where the blues came
from. Moviemaker Wim Wenders, not only white, but also German, might
kindly disagree. Growing up in a divided country, Wenders not only
heard the blues, but identified with the messages of sadness and
lament from an America deeply divided by racial strife. It was his
introduction to the blues, followed by rock and roll, that propelled
Wenders toward a career behind the camera

An overview of Wenders’ acclaimed and award-winning films reveals
that each one is intrinsically linked to the soundtrack. After
the success of Buena Vista Social Club, where Wenders turned
the spotlight on forgotten Cuban jazz musicians, it isn’t surprising
that this art house auteur has turned his lens on Mississippi and
three obscure blues legends: Blind Willie Johnson, J.B. Lenoir
and Skip James.

The Soul of a Man is Wenders’ contribution to The Blues,
a much larger documentary project helmed by Martin Scorsese, airing
on PBS stations around the country this fall with a subsequent
release on DVD. Wenders and six other directors, including Charles
Burnett, Richard Pearce, Clint Eastwood, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis
and Scorsese himself, put together films on various aspects of
the blues. Wenders’ production company, Road Movies, is one of
the series’ executive producers.

Wenders is known for taking chances with his films. He fictionalized
the life of hard-boiled mystery writer Dashiell Hammett for Hammett,
took his camera to the dusty backroads of the Lonestar State for
the gut-wrenching Paris, Texas and hit his stride with his classic
meditation on angels, Wings of Desire. Most audaciously,
he filmed the ultimate road movie, Until the End of the World,
in 15 cities in eight countries on four continents. (He even smuggled
star Solveig Dommartin into China with a tiny camera when he decided
to bypass Beijing’s red tape).

“The blues didn’t speak of glamour,
skyscrapers or pin-up girls. It showed the other side, the
grittier one. When you had the blues, there was nothing better
to listen to.” —Wim Wenders

But it was Buena Vista Social Club that not only introduced
Wenders to a whole new generation of film lovers, but brought the
spotlight to Havana and a group of nearly-forgotten jazz musicians.
In the documentary, Wenders followed blues guitarist Ry Cooder’s
pilgrimage to Cuba to record the music of Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay
Segundo, Ruben Gozales, Omara Portuondo and other aging musicians
who had been left in near poverty and obscurity under Fidel Castro’s
control. The film revived the careers of these musicians and saw
them sell out concerts in Europe and New York’s Carnegie Hall.
He followed this with a documentary of Willie Nelson and Emmylou
Harris recording Nelson’s acclaimed “Teatro” album.

A quick glance at the soundtracks to Wenders’ films shows an eclectic
taste for world music. Until the End of the World famously
brought together Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Depeche Mode, U2,
Neneh Cherry, Peter Gabriel, Nick Cave and others to accompany
the around-the-world journey. Cooder’s soulful guitar licks propelled
both Paris, Texas and i, while it was a story
by Bono that turned into The Million Dollar Hotel with its
alt-rock tunes by Daniel Lanois and U2.

But how did a German teenager find out about Blind Willie Johnson,
Skip James and J.B. Lenoir? “I got to know blues music when I was
14 or 15 years old, mostly from the American Forces Network,” Wenders
says, recalling when American, British, French and Russian troops
were still stationed in Germany after World War II. “I had a transistor
radio and listened to it for hours at night, with the radio hidden
under my pillow.”

In the blues, and its offspring, rock and roll, Wenders found
an “urgency and immediacy” lacking in other music. It was also
this music that dispelled the idea of the American Dream. “It didn’t
speak of the glamour, the skyscrapers, the cars or pin-up girls.
It showed the other side… the grittier one. And when you had the
blues, there was nothing better to listen to. That music had a
comfort and strength.”

Skip James, born in Bentonia, Mississippi in 1902, may be known
to many in recent time as the man singing “Devil Got My Woman” in
Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. James had been rediscovered
in 1964, but not a single photograph or piece of film could be
found of him when he was at the height of his powers and making
his most famous recordings in 1931. James died in 1969, jaded by
what he called “the music racket.”

Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club resurrected
the careers of several long-forgotten Cuban jazz musicians.

J.B. Lenoir, born in Monticello, Mississippi in 1929, recorded
in Chicago in the 1940s with other greats like Muddy Waters and
Memphis Minnie. He died in 1967 and is buried in his hometown at
Salem Church Cemetery.

But it was the spirit of Blind Willie Johnson, who often used
the blues to carry religious messages, that took control of the
film that bears the name of one of his songs. Born sometime around
the turn of the 20th century in Texas, Johnson recorded for only
a few years from the late ’20s to the early ’30s, but was mainly
a Baptist minister. Songs like “Motherless Children Have A Hard
Time” and “Let Your Light Shine on Me” were some of his most popular.
He died of pneumonia in 1947, sleeping in the ruins of his home
that had burned to the ground.

During the planning stages of the film, Wenders discovered there
was no archival footage of Blind Willie Johnson. “My blues heroes
have been dead for 40 or 50 years, so that made the task of shooting
a film about them very different,” he says. “I don’t even really
know what Blind Willie Johnson looked like.

“The three didn’t know each other; they were really from different
generations altogether,” he says. “But all three of them wrote
all the songs themselves and they were great singers, songwriters
and instrumentalists. They left important legacies and had a lasting
influence on many musicians who learned from them.” As with the
Cuban musicians, Wenders wanted to lift these bluesmen from their
obscurity “because they deserved so much better.”

Wenders himself is still surprised by the
success of Until the End of the World, which flopped
upon its initial release.

Wenders called upon musician Chris Thomas King (who portrayed
another famous bluesman, Tommy Johnson, in O Brother, Where
Art Thou
) to portray Blind Willie in a series of vignettes
filmed with an old hand-crank camera that simulates those grainy,
patinaed films from the ’20s and ’30s. (Wenders used this type
of camera to dazzling effect in his film about the evolution of
German cinematography, A Trick of the Light.)

Then Wenders made a decision that he says “saved my ass”—he made
Blind Willie Johnson the narrator of the film (as voiced by Laurence
Fishburne). Of course, this is a Wim Wenders film, so there had
to be a twist on this conceit, as well: Johnson narrates the film
from outer space. This is not as bizarre as it sounds, and not
quite as bizarre as the little known piece of information Wenders
dug up while researching Johnson. It turns out that a recording
of Johnson’s “Blind Was The Night” was one of three songs put aboard
the first Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. That song, along
with other data about Earth, was on the ship for the benefit of
any aliens who might intercept it.

“Someone had incredible insight and wisdom to include Blind Willie
on that recording,” Wenders says with amusement. “That gave me
the idea to have Blind Willie narrate the film from the pretty
unique perspective of somebody traveling through outer space. That
device made the whole film fall into place, as weird as it might
seem.”

Other journeys that made the film fall into place were the visits
Wenders made to Mississippi to scout and shoot footage. Interpreting
the Deep South that spawned the blues music he so reveres was a
personal pilgrimage for the director. Wenders says he used his
journey to learn more about the three bluesmen. “I knew their music
so well, but didn’t have much of a clue about how they lived. So
to zig-zag all across Mississippi and go to Bentonia, Jackson,
Monticello or Tunica, that was a real discovery for me. To spend
time in the Delta—and to go way out of the way to visit Paris,
Mississippi—all of that was a fabulous time and gave me a deeper
understanding of the source these songs were coming from.”

The Soul
of a Man Fact Sheet

(part four of The Blues)

Format:
DV PAL and 35mm hand cranked camera. (HD Master then transferred to 35mm).
Sony PD150 cameras were used for the entire shoot, except for the reenactment
scenes. Those were shot on a 35mm hand-cranker with both black and
white and color stock from Kodak.

Shooting Schedule:
Over a period of nearly two years, from 2001 to early 2003. Individual
performances by modern artists were recorded at various points during
2002 and 2003 in Los Angeles, New York and London as the artists were
available.

Written and directed by:
Wim Wenders

Photographed by:
Lisa Rinzler

Produced by:
Alex Gibney
Margaret Bodde

Line Producers:
Samson Mücke
Paul Marcus

Edited by:
Mathilde Bonnefoy
Production Design:
Liba Daniels

Narrated by:
Laurence Fishburne

Wenders met descendants of the three bluesmen and shot numerous
interviews, many of which wound up on the cutting room floor. Traveling
through Mississippi, the film he wanted to make slowly took shape. “It
was going to be more about the music and the essence of those songs
than a biographical survey.” Working on a small budget, Wenders’
means of recreating the ’20s and ’30s was non-existent. So, he
decided to film without “dressing” the shots. “I made a virtue
of that default by consciously leaving everything as we found it
in 2001 and 2002.”

Wenders says he found that Mississippi, which remains the poorest
state in the union, has not changed much since the Great Depression,
and there was no way to hide it. “In fact, a lot of the places
we came through were still heavily depressed and often reminded
us more of third world locations than of the United States in the
21st century. That made some of the existential urgency of those
songs by Skip from the ’30s or by J.B. from the ’60s even more
poignant,” he adds.

Once location filming was complete, Wenders turned to a group
of his favorite singers and performers to interpret the songs of
the bluesmen, to show the enduring legacy and love for the music.
He brought in Lou Reed, T-Bone Burnett, Bonnie Raitt (whom he found
in an old photo sitting at the feet of Skip James during a concert),
Mississippi native Cassandra Wilson, the John Spencer Blues Explosion
and Chris Thomas King to reinterpret the songs. Wenders let the
musicians pick a tune and then filmed them over 18 months in Los
Angeles, Chicago, New York and London. “All the musicians went
out of their way to give a moving tribute to our three heroes.
And some exceeded my expectations, by far.”

Ultimately, Wenders’ film has also exceeded his greatest expectations.
Shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this
year, The Soul Of A Man received rapturous reviews and praise
from critics and filmgoers.

Not one to linger over a project once it’s complete, Wenders is
already in pre-production on his next film. He says he has done
three documentaries in a row about music (four if you include the
documentary he filmed on German rock band BAP), and now it was
time to “go back to a fictional story.” That story was written
by Sam Shepard and has the working title Don’t Come Knocking. “It’s
a great script. I’ve been waiting to make this film for quite some
time.”

Film fanatics are also eagerly awaiting the DVD release of the
rarely seen five-hour director’s cut of Until the End of the
World
. Wenders has screened this version at numerous festivals
over the last decade and still marvels at the new cult status of
the film, considered a flop upon its release in 1991. Perhaps this
wonder and continued curiosity are what keeps Wenders behind the
camera.

“I didn’t dream of becoming a filmmaker,” he says. “I wanted to
be a painter and a poet and a writer and a musician. Only later
did I understand that filmmaking was all of that, just rolled into
one.” MM

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