In January 2020, over 200 blues musicians descended on the famous Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, to compete in the 36th annual International Blues Competition, a contest desig—ned to find the best performers from around the globe. Artists represented their local blues organizations from 17 different countries, some from as far away as Croatia, South Korea and Australia. It was truly a celebration of the genre in all its forms — and, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the last musical competitions of its size for quite some time.
Producers Cecily and Larry Lancit, Lynne Brenner Ganek and Steve Zink — together Lancit Digital Productions – are best known for the legendary PBS program Reading Rainbow. Their new film, Blues on Beale, isn’t a children’s program but brings the same clear, thoughtful educational perspective to its subject. The team was on the ground for the 36th IBC and filmed scores of interviews with contestants, programmers, judges, musicians and blues historians to create a concise look at what makes it such a profound and widely adopted genre.
Along the way, they track the development of the blues as music born from struggle, strife and African-American culture, and how its universal appeal became adopted by other groups and cultures. Rather than relying solely on historians, though, they ask artists how they view the music they’ve come so far to perform. There’s no universal answer, although many of them boil it down to how the music feels — and that’s not to say the blues, when you have them, are necessarily a bad thing. It’s not all sad, dour stuff. There’s a rawness to the music that each of the performers feels in their own way, and the music they perform either solo or as a band is a pure expression of it.
The IBC is a five-day event, and we meet most of the bands during the two-day quarterfinals when hope is in the air and nobody knows how far they might get. Some of the musicians are eliminated immediately, but we do manage to follow several into the semifinals, finals and even to ultimate victory. Heartbreak and triumph go hand-in-hand, but Blues on Beale isn’t a competition drama. It’s a celebratory documentary with an explicitly positive disposition. Artists who are interviewed after their elimination speak highly of the competition and their love of music. Nothing about the IBC is designed to dissuade musicians from continuing their careers. To the contrary: It acts as a major event for labels and artists to mingle and network. Winning the IBC is a high honor, but it’s not the only positive outcome of attending.
Lest it seem like Blues on Beale is simply an advertisement for the event (and there are certainly a legion of fluff documentaries about this sort of thing), rest assured it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, it feels like something of a dry run for Lancit Productions’ next feature on the blues, a multi-part documentary series in development titled Way of the Blues, hosted by LeVar Burton. Further information can be found on their website, along with extended performances by many of the artists who competed in the 2019 IBC. Although blues is not a genre toward which I normally gravitate, the film makes a really substantial entry-level case for why it’s one of America’s greatest contributions to the realm of music by depicting the worldwide community that has engaged with it.