Concert movies are a documentary staple, from classics like Woodstock and The Last Waltz to modern takes like Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids. They provide a contained narrative window that can service various other storylines. And there’s usually killer music. Joe LaMattina’s Memphis ‘69 fits solidly in this tradition, and is a must-see for fans of Tennessee blues and soul, though it also has more on its mind.
The Memphis County Blues Festival started in 1966, and the 1969 installment is notable for a number of reasons. First, it marked the city’s 150th anniversary. It also occurred the year after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis—a fact never directly addressed in the film, though the beginning scrawl points out that the Overton Park Band Shell, the venue for this concert whose primary goal was to bring people together, also played host to KKK rallies.
LaMattina and his wife, Lisa, with the help of Fat Possum Records, unearthed footage of the three-day event taken by Gene Rosenthal and a small crew. They shot 40,000 feet of footage, and the result is an upfront, intimate look at the festival. The warm, crackling images have remained largely unseen for five decades and boast performances by Rufus Thomas and the Bar-Kays, Bukka White, Lum Guffin, Furry Lewis, and many more—including the blind, 106-year-old bluesman Nathan Beauregard. They may not be the big household names everyone know, but they represent the history of blues and soul in the region. The film also features more contemporary, more rock-oriented artists, like Johnny Winter and Moloch.
First and foremost, Memphis ‘69 is a concert movie, and the music forms the centerpiece. At the same time, it also offers a time capsule glimpse, at the city, the population, and generational and racial divides. By and large, the black artists are all older, and all men, guys who have been at this for years and years. Their music has a raw, visceral, lived-in feel—it’s rough to the touch, textured, and carries and oomph that palms you on the chest.
On the other hand, the white artists are all younger and hipper and there are a handful of women—think hippies, or hippie-adjacent. Musically, they’re more polished and slick—what they’re selling feels more like a product, something honed and learned in music classes rather than in clubs and on stages. They have the chops and hit all the right notes, but they largely lack the edge and weight and power of the older performers. They also proudly wave a countercultural flag—one act openly decries the Vietnam War, another contextual reminder of the times.
It’s not a clash of worlds or ages necessarily. Both groups are obviously pleased to be part of this—the older artists are happy to share with a new generation and audience, while the younger performers have an obvious reverence for those who came before. The great music forms the center of Memphis ‘69, and is what makes it worth watching, but this juxtaposition and larger cultural context offers additional depth and makes it somewhat more than a cool, overlooked moment in time. [Grade: B-]