Unlike Ken Burns' Jazz, the television mini-series it recalls, the 2003 public-TV project The Blues, for which movie director Martin Scorsese served as executive producer, was not a multi-part documentary history of its chosen musical genre. Instead, seven different filmmakers, starting with Scorsese, made blues-related movies of one sort or another. Wim Wenders, who helmed The Soul of a Man, the second film in the series, concentrated on his three favorite blues artists, Blind Willie Johnson (1902-47), Skip James (1902-69), and J.B. Lenoir (1929-67). Wenders' affection for Johnson had been demonstrated previously in his 1984 film Paris, Texas, which boasted a Ry Cooder score that drew heavily on Johnson's influence. This soundtrack album for The Soul of a Man uses one song each, recorded by the three subjects, and adds John Mayall's 1967 song "The Death of J.B. Lenoir," but otherwise calls upon contemporary musicians to interpret the music of James, Johnson, and Lenoir. Some of them are people who have contributed to previous Wenders soundtracks. Lou Reed, his voice so hoarse as to be unrecognizable, performs James' "Look Down the Road," and closes the album with Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," while Nick Cave renders Lenoir's "I Feel So Good." Of the 18 songs written by one of the principals, Lenoir and James have eight tunes each, while Johnson is recalled only by his own rendition of "Soul of a Man," and Marc Ribot's performance of his signature song "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground." The artists turn in characteristic efforts, with Beck going for an authentic-sounding reading of James' "I'm So Glad," and Bonnie Raitt turning James' "Devil Got My Woman" into a typical Raitt showcase. This is, in effect, a tripartite tribute album, and like most such collections, uneven with occasional outstanding tracks. But nobody cuts the originals.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann