by Terry Abrahamson
Photo: Hubert Sumlin & Howlin' Wolf
Born in Chicago Film Review/ by Terry Abrahamson
Play. Pause. Rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind. Play.
It took me eight hours to make it through Born in Chicago, a seventy seven minute tale of a handful of white teenagers converging on black Chicago blues clubs in the early ’60s to embrace the holy grail of American music at the feet of the masters. The ability to stop the footage inside Silvio’s or Johnny Pepper’s and roll it back to read the poster on the wall proclaiming “GiGi DeCarlo: First Lady of the West Side” headlining the “Show of the Year,” or the one heralding Elmore James and Sunnyland Slim’s stint at the Asgardian Club Zanzibar; to restudy the archival clips to see if that was really SP Leary with Muddy and Spann, or TBone with Shakey and Dixon; and to listen half a dozen times to Barry Goldberg’s recollections of “da basement” and of riding in Mike Bloomfield’s mom’s car from the North Shore to the South Side stand as the only justifications for relegating this wondrous film to my kitchen flatscreen.
The Laws of Sociogeocultural Physics suggest that the depth, breadth and Krakatoa-dwarfing pulse of Born in Chicago should spontaneously disintegrate any flatscreen - any CineramaDome - like a house of cards in the crosshairs of the Death Star. It belongs in a temple formed of the reconstructed end-of-the-line bricks of the 12th Street Station, mortared with the pulverized bones of Pullman Porters: the disembarkation point for refugees from America’s greatest pain bearing America’s greatest gift to the world. And all presented under the auspices of the Smithsonian…..make that the Willie “Big Eyes” Smith-sonian. It’s a mushroom cloud rising from the collision of history, inhumanity, perseverance, redemption and the swagger-whimsy-imagination squeezed from the nothin’-left-to-lose. It’s the legacy of generations who fell through the cracks into a wonderland stumbled upon by young men who knew the only rabbit hole worth the dive had a Cadillac parked out front with impale-yourself-chasin’-the-pop-fly-to-the-curb tailfins, and a sign above the window shoutin’ “The Great Muddy Waters.”
Try to imagine, twelve thousand years ago, the look on the face of the first North American Paleo-Indigene to see the Grand Canyon trying to describe that experience to the tribe. If you can’t, that’s okay. That expression had kids, and their kids had kids…right down the line. And Born in Chicago is the family reunion picnic, t-shirts and all, alive on the face of:
Nick Gravenites recalling Paul Butterfield taking the stage with Junior Wells, in Charlie Musselwhite’s memory of sitting in with Muddy Waters at Pepper’s, in Elvin Bishop’s wide-eyed flashback of sharing shots and licks at Otis Rush’s house, and nowhere more glowingly than on the sparkle of Corky Siegel taking us back to his early morning Greenwich Village strolls with Howlin’ Wolf….the closest the human genome will ever get to approximating the Grand Canyon.
With awe, eloquence and the rarest of understanding that, for precious seconds, they rode the heartbeat that pumped the blood of history, a homegrown Greek hardguy, a coupla transplanted country boys, and a handful of wandering Jews hopelessly lost deep in the Staticland at the uncharted end of the AM dial recount their collective pilgrimage to Chicago’s South and West Sides to experience the churning, chugging, wailing, grinding multi-headed beast that emerged from the heartland once, as Muddy Waters matter-of-factly shares, “I set Chicago up for the real Blues.”
Hearing Otis Rush’s sky-cracking, seven second cue to Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby;” enduring your nerve endings dragged raw across the Maxwell Street concrete by Robert Nighthawk’s “Murderin’ Blues;” marveling at the shrinking of the known world to the insignificance of a bled-out amoeba before the majesty of Muddy Waters, and emerging shellshocked from the multi-megatonian wallop of arguably the most powerful stage presence of all time, the Howlin’ Wolf, there is no room for sadness over the abbreviated earthly lifespans of Bloomfield and Butterfield. There is only wonder in the estimation of how much force and fire their mortal minds and spirits were able to absorb, process and release into the cosmos in so very few moments of existence, sweetened with the gratitude that Siegel, Gravenites, Musselwhite, Bishop, Goldberg, Steve Miller and Harvey Mandel somehow survived to carry it on. That wonder is perpetually stoked by the endless parade of the anonymous faces of diaspora; by the glistening nuggets of reflection - more appropriately viewed through a jeweler’s loop - of survivors Sam Lay, Hubert Sumlin, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Phil and Marshall Chess; by Bob Dylan’s incredulity at Blind Blake rising from the strings of Bloomfield, who he calls “the best guitar player I ever heard;” and by the mesmerizing time capsule stills of Big Joe Williams with his nine-string and of Bloomfield sitting, back to a brick wall, on a street corner sidewalk with wood guitar and racked harp.
With love and scholarly authority, directors Bob Sarles and John Anderson deliver, in gritty, grainy pixels, a story that could’ve been written in stained and faded whiskey-soaked parchment. This is the American tale: the immigrant’s odyssey, the survivor’s hymn and the hero’s journey, that hero being the Blues that emerged from the South, came of age in Chicago and ascended to its throne on the stages of the Fillmore and Woodstock. Even Dan Aykroyd’s laudably restrained narration evokes the weight of history while betraying just enough adoration to let us feel his goosebumps, most notably when Bloomfield, Goldberg and Gravenites are joined by Buddy Miles and - yes - Harvey Brooks in their Electric Flag turn at Monterey Pop.
In a walk with giants, you expect the earth to shake, and Born in Chicago is storytelling at its seismic best. And, with a little help from Pause and Rewind, that seventy-seven minutes can shake you all night long.
Born in Chicago can be viewed on a variety of streaming platforms, click below to see links: