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Indie Memphis Review: Full Moon Lightnin

October 25, 2008

“Blues is a beautiful woman, taken from you way too soon. Makin’ love to her in the mornin’ and she’s gone by the afternoon.” – lyrics from the Floyd Lee band, written by Joel Poluck. (Photo courtesy of Joel Poluck)

Note: I made some slight revisions to the original post after watching the doc a second time and have switched it out with this one – so if this looks familiar, it is because it is!

I watch a lot of documentaries. So, when I come across one that tugs at my heartstrings, I have to take some time to think about it before I review it. I saw John Gardiner’s Full Moon Lightnin last week and once more this week, but couldn’t bring myself to touch upon how I felt about it until now.

If you’ve never really felt the blues, and I don’t mean heard the blues, I mean felt it in that inner core part of you, than this doc is a must-see. Gardiner weaves the story of two musicians on their shared journeys in such a way that by the end, you can’t just listen to the blues anymore; you feel it.

However, after watching it a second time I tried my best to not respond to the emotional connect I felt, but instead pay attention to some of the events that occurred in the film.

The synopsis of the movie presents your basic blues documentary:

It has been over 60 years since New York City bluesman, Floyd Lee, left the hill country of Mississippi and with his exodus he turned his back on a troubled childhood and a harsh life in the cotton fields. Abandoned by a mother he never knew, Floyd still wrestles with unanswered questions to his mysterious and painful past. Now at the age of 73, Floyd and his band embark on a deeply personal journey back home to Mississippi to reconnect with the family he left behind and search for the family he never knew. Along the way they are forced to deal with a tragedy that will change their lives forever.

Gardiner came across Lee playing on the streets of New York and like any good storyteller, wanted to know more about this talented blues musician. Anyone who does a quick search over youtube would find hundreds of videos from people who have met Lee when in New York and recorded him playing. But Lee also has a band that has recorded and toured all over the world.

The Floyd Lee Band is made up of Lee (vocals, guitar and harmonica), Joel Poluck (electric, acoustic and lapsteel guitar), Brad Vickers (bass, acoustic guitar), and Sam Carr (drums).

The band has made four albums from 2001-2006, with the last two recordings captured on the documentary: “Full Moon Lightnin,” recorded in 2004 at Jimbo Mathus’ studio in Clarksdale, Mississippi and “Doctors, Devils, and Drugs” in 2006 at Bedford Studios in New York.

“People are always asking me what is the blues? where does blues come from? I think the movie gives you the answers to those questions, no phoneyness, nothing contrived. if people don’t get what the blues is after watching the movie they never will,” said Joel Poluck in a recent interview after the Indie Memphis screening.

The reason the film expresses the blues in such a way is more than just the music being recorded. Gardiner manages to capture the spirit of the blues in the parallel stories of Lee and Poluck’s journeys. The movie, while begun in 2004 to be a story about Floyd Lee’s travels to find his roots in Mississippi, evolved into something more as lead guitarist Poluck’s girlfriend of 18 years begins her struggle with ovarian cancer.

Gardiner didn’t have to do much but turn on the camera to be able to create an emotional response to these two men who as one make up the heart of the blues, but separately, their personal lives were taking two very different paths. I became slightly confused as to the timeline of the story, but realize that that only happens because of some of the early footage in the doc is at the Bedford Studios and about Poluck, when really those occurred after their Mississippi trip.

However, as the movie develops you see the connections between the recordings and their two stories, so once the film is over, the slight blurriness of the timeline really doesn’t matter much. Especially because what the documentary did for me, and perhaps other audience members, is leave us wanting to know more about the Floyd Lee band.

In my research after the film, I discovered quite a bit about Lee that I found fascinating and wish had been explored even more during the film, but then, that would have been a very different documentary. Perhaps Gardiner can make Part 2!

  • Born in August 1933 and given away by his mother when only a few months old, Floyd spent the first 10 years of his life growing up in Lamar Mississippi near Holly Springs.
  • During the summer, he would often hear his adopted father sing blues songs while working in the cotton fields.
  • Going to school in Memphis during the winter months living in a house located in Webbs Alley, Floyd would sneak out at night to watch his father, who was known in the local blues scene as Guitar Floyd, perform with other bluesmen such as young Guitar Slim.
  • Floyd left the South early on, put on a bus at the age of ten and sent on his own, with a sign around his neck that simply read “Chicago”. Staying with relatives briefly, “right up there under the L train”, he earned a living by shining shoes on 43rd and Indiana.
  • Floyd moved to New York in the early seventies finding work in Spring Valley, eventually settling down in Harlem. Working for twenty-seven years as a doorman.
  • He was a founding member of the Music Under New York program in the mid 1980’s and has performed at such events as NYC Mayor Dinkin’s inauguration and entertained visiting dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela.

In the documentary, Lee and band travel down to Mississippi to find his original home, or what remained in the decay of a kudzu field. The moment is touching and Gardiner cuts back and forth between interviews with band members and footage of Lee experiencing a profound moment in life. But not everything is intense. As they step off the bus, they discover a locked gate and have to climb over the fence. The moment is classic comedy.

However, more importantly, the microcosm of Lee traveling home after so many years, reflects the larger history of The Second Wave of the Great Migration where thousands of southern African Americans traveled north. And for Gardiner, this is where the idea of Lee began but he quickly discovered that the macrocosm of the northern journey had been told before. But, a personal account of one man returning after so many years, had not been done quite as much. What is interesting in watching Lee on his personal journey is how much of Mississippi, and later Memphis, culture he retained as an artist.

An early poster for the film showed a sketch of the barn that remained standing. In a way, the image represents the skeletal past of what Lee comes to find as “home.” Only decaying remnants are left, but they are proof enough that he was there.

The first trip did not prove fruitful to finding family but Gardiner steps in. Having done some research, the director had discovered Lee’s brothers. On a second journey to the state, Lee meets his long lost brothers at the grave of their mother. Lee, who’d been given away, brings flowers for a mother he never knew. The moment is poignant, with joy, tears, and an uncomfortable distance between the strangers meeting each other as brothers.

At the Indie Memphis Q&A, an audience member asked Gardiner, why do his brothers not seem very happy to see him?

Gardiner responded that Lee is a virtual stranger, and the discomfort you see on film is from all of them having never known each other and yet so many years later suddenly seeing each other face to face.

But for Lee, it was a sense of closure, of understanding who you are, finally, after so long. Gardiner captures these stark honest moments in Lee’s travels and from what I can tell is not heavy handed in trying to interpret them to the audience. You just share this extremely intimate moment with Lee.

The footage of the recording of the Full Moon Lightnin CD during this time in Mississippi captures that sense of connection and joy. Lee’s infectious spirit emanates this amazing life force.

Just Lee’s journey alone would have been alot for a documentary to take on but then the doc shifts as the band encounters another major life event.

This is where I emotionally responded to the story. As somewhat in the same time frame I’d taken a similar journey with my mother (not a blues musician but born in the birthplace of the blues, Tutwiler). She was adopted after being abandoned by her mother and she’d been moved away from her birth place in the Delta as an infant. I drove her back to her birth place when she moved back to Mississippi after spending most of her adult life in California and watched her reconnect to her own roots. At the same time, my world was falling apart with broken vows and a slowly dying marriage.

So, when I watched Lee’s guitarist Joel struggle to try and remain composed and in control during the recording sessions of their next album “Doctors, Devils and Drugs,” I lost it completely. Here was a man who loved someone so completely that he wrote these beautiful songs to make her feel better.

What makes you connect and care for her is just that; we never see her through Gardiner’s lens. Instead, Joel shared footage he had taken of their time together near the end, after surgeries, drugs, hair loss. The home video footage is untouched by an outside perspective. It is raw and beautiful and heartbreaking. As intimate and lovely as Gardiner’s footage of Lee with family.

Where Lee’s home visit led to the recording of a delightful bluesy record, the New York recording was for Nella, Joel’s girlfriend. As she is nearing the end of her battle with the cancer, you can see where there is a shift in the emotions of all the band, from the joy of the first recording, to a somber dirge like tone as they manage to pull together a beautiful album.

As Lee is recording one of the songs, he breaks down in tears, upset for both of his friends struggle. The result, within the film and on the album, is this soulful, melancholic recording of the blues. You feel it as much in the guitar playing as you do in Lee’s voice.

And that is how the doc makes you feel the blues. Gardiner captures more than just musicians recording, or guys on a road trip. The way the Floyd Lee Band plays on the doc is an interesting dynamic between young Canadian Poluck, who emotionally plays in a strange fusion of post-war and modern blues with Lee’s traditional delta blues voice. As the film nears its end, you realize that the two, Lee and Poluck, even on different paths, converge at the crossroads of the blues. The result is what is quickly becoming one of my favorite blues albums and one of my favorite new docs.

Full Moon Lightnin has played a handful of festivals so far, but keep a watch out for it as I am sure more fests will pick it up soon.

For a sample of the Floyd Lee Band – here is a video from their performance at Ground Zero. Note Jimbo Mathus rocking along with them.

And here’s some outtake footage of the group in a lighter mood than most of the doc:

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