One musician featured in the documentary Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story jokingly bemoans the fact that it almost isn’t fair that Butterfield was such a talented blues harmonica player and a gifted singer. But the man came by his talent honestly—by growing up on the South Side of Chicago and learning and playing with the best that the city’s blues scene had to offer. That included his mentor, Muddy Waters, who let this young white kid on stage with him quite frequently when Butterfield was still just a teenager. The film traces Butterfield’s painfully short career that nevertheless made him a celebrated band leader of a racially diverse band despite being often sidelined by issues with drugs, ultimately killing him at the age of 44.
Using a healthy mix of archival photos, film and studio tracks, as well as interviews with a host of musicians who played with him throughout the years (including high-profile sidemen like Michael Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop and Sam Lay), director John Anderson not only tracks Butterfield’s life and career but also examines the way he was on the front lines of bringing blues music and musicians back into the mainstream. (It’s no accident that Butterfield is playing alongside Waters and Eric Clapton in the Martin Scorsese-directed The Last Waltz, a document of the final concert of The Band.)
Horn from the Heart is honest about the ways Butterfield screwed up his relationships with bandmates and his first wife while still managing to keep busy guesting on other people’s records or showing up on stage with folks like Bonnie Raitt. Attempts at kickstarting a solo career never quite had the heart that his earlier albums did, even if the resulting records were still quite good. Although he never said it out loud (at least not in front of any of the players featured in this doc), Butterfield was an ambassador for racial equality in rock music and a humble savior of the blues tradition. The film honors him, his heroes, and the city and institutions that featured them faithfully. Music lovers and amateur historians should consider this a must-see.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Friday, Nov. 9, at 8pm, Saturday, Nov. 10, at 5pm, and Sunday Nov. 11, at 2pm, director John Anderson and musician Corky Siegel are scheduled to appear for audience Q&As.
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