Howlin' Wolf

The Howling Wolf Story

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Not just a moving and accurate portrait of the legendary bluesman but a capsule history of postwar Chicago blues, this documentary, expanded with extra footage for its DVD release, is an educational and extremely entertaining story of one of the most mesmerizing blues figures. Articulate and touching remembrances from people close to Howlin' Wolf, including his two daughters, drummer Sam Lay, and guitarists Jody Williams and Hubert Sumlin (the latter having a substantial amount of screen time), and even Wolf himself (predominantly on audio), describe the seminal bluesman's fascinating life. From his hardscrabble plantation beginnings as Chester Burnett to his ultimate position as one of the undisputed giants of the Chicago scene (along with rival Muddy Waters), the film examines the personal and professional sides of Wolf through interviews with family and associates, as well as rare performance footage. Seeing Wolf's on-stage antics, which include licking the neck of his guitar with bugged-out eyes, is an experience that remains unforgettable. Since this is an "authorized" story, some of the negative aspects of Wolf's life may have been glossed over or omitted completely. But a Sam Lay story about how the longtime Wolf drummer was fired for not wearing tuxedo pants shows the bandleader to be a strict taskmaster who often wouldn't listen to reason. The documentary runs about 90 minutes, but the extras, which include grainy but fascinating color home movies (without sound) from Lay and a mini-documentary exploring the Wolf/Waters rivalry, expand the disc to nearly two hours. From Wolf scolding a drunk and disorderly Son House to poignant stories from his daughters about how his troubled relationship with his own mother made him a particularly attentive family man, the film paints an intimate portrait of a mysterious and complicated person. The audio track is only in two-channel stereo but the sound is pristine, and the raw archival footage is remixed to contemporary standards. Even those who have never heard Wolf's music will find this documentary compelling, and for any enthusiast -- which is just about every blues fan -- it is essential viewing.