Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Full Moon Lightnin’ reviewed by Mark Thompson
Film by John C. Gardiner
Willow Tree Pictures
Soundtrack CD - 11 tracks/45:23
Now available on DVD, this documentary film takes the viewer deep into the lives of bluesman Floyd Lee and his musical partner, guitarist Joel Poluck. Starting out in New York City, we see the two musicians playing on the street and drawing a large crowd, some of whom can’t help but dance to the insistent rhythm.
As we learn more about Lee, it’s revealed that he left Mississippi sixty years earlier after dealing with a number of hardships, including being abandoned by his mother. Now 73 years old, Lee wants to take a trip back to the delta to see if he can locate any of his remaining siblings or other relatives. He is filled with a longing to have some semblance of a family’s love that has been missing for decades in his life. The difficulty in the search is that Lee has only his memories of people and places from his childhood to guide him.
Poluck and bass player, Brad Vickers, are ready to take the trip with Lee and help him reconnect with family. The band - including drummer Steve Pozzelanti - have been working on new material in the recording studio after a two year break. But Poluck gets blindsided before the trip can get started when the love of his life, Nella, is diagnosed with cancer. From this point the film tracks two divergent paths as Lee seeks a future that includes his past - and Poluck struggles to hold on to his world that is suddenly spinning out of control.
The musicians make the trip and are able to find the spot where Lee grew up, near Lamar, Mississippi. Lee remembers the various buildings and details of the landscape but is a bit shocked to discover his mother’s house no longer exists. On a second trip six months later, the group meets with legendary drummer Sam Carr, hoping this long time resident of the area can assist in locating Lee’s relatives. Carr and Lee share some biting remarks on the economy fueled by cotton. Eventually Lee locates a log-lost cousin and their joyous reunion ends up with the two men singing a gospel tune out on the street. Another moving moment occurs when Lee meets two of his brothers at the cemetery where their mother is buried. Lee’s excitement is tempered a bit when they are unable to locate the exact spot of their mother’s grave. Later he is introduced to his brothers families and finds himself surrounded for the first time with the love he has been yearning for so long. As Lee’s dream comes true, Poluck suffers the loss of his beloved Nella.
The two men are a study in contrasts - Lee the aging black bluesman whose emotions are always bubbling just under the surface, suddenly bursting forth as the sadness or joy overcomes him. His protégé, Poluck, is the soft-spoken, stoic Canadian who tries to help Lee while caring for Nella, the whole time keeping his emotions bottled up. One poignant scene was filmed during the second day of recording in a Brooklyn studio. While working on Lee’s vocal part for Poluck’s original tune “Can’t You See’, Lee is suddenly overcome with emotion, blurting out “That shit hurts ” and walking out of the studio to regain his composure, leaving Poluck to visibly struggle to hold himself together.
The companion audio disc included with this package contains full-length versions of material from the film, including an intense studio version of “Mean Blues”. The film has a live performance of the song from Lee’s appearance at the Sunflower Blues Festival. Another musical highlight is a clip of the band at Po’ Monkeys, one of the last of the original juke joints. Both segments feature Sam Carr on drums.
Don’t think for a minute that this film is another feel-good Hollywood story. While the project started out focusing on Lee’s search for his past, reality forced it’s way into the storyline with Nella’s illness. One can only imagine the effort it took for Poluck to juggle the recording schedule, the planning of Lee’s trip, writing new material, making the journey to Mississippi - all while doing everything he can for Nella. In a movie about musicians, the music takes a back seat to the drama that touches the lives of everyone involved in this moving narrative, a tale that is a stark reminder of the blues is all about.