Blues on film: Clarksdale Film and Music Festival celebrates artistry of native Mississippians

Whether you’re a blues fan or a film fan, you owe it to yourself to go to this year’s Clarksdale Film and Music Festival.

Now in its fourteenth year, the festival boasts an eclectic lineup of music documentaries, music videos, concert films, student films and even a short film featuring handmade marionettes at a pop-up theater in the Stone Pony Tack Room on Delta Avenue. Filmmakers from as far as Canada and Brazil will be in attendance to discuss their work. And it’s all paired with live performances from Mississippi blues artists.

“We try to have films where we can either get musicians who were involved with it or the directors or producers in attendance,” said Roger Stolle, artistic director of the festival. “And this year, I think everything but one film has representation.”

The closing film for Friday is the world premiere of A Life in Blues: James “Super Chikan” Johnson, a feature-length documentary about the Clarksdale-based blues performer. Johnson will perform live at a reception before the screening, and Canadian filmmakers Mark Rankin and Brian Wilson will be in attendance.

“We’ve been working on this film for several years now, and we’re excited to premiere it in James’ hometown,” Rankin said. “Those who attended last year’s festival may have seen the trailer we screened while we were still editing the final version.”

Rankin is a producer and director of several short films, and a blues performer in his own right with the popular Vancouver act The Mojo Stars. When Johnson performed in Vancouver in 2018, Rankin performed as part of Johnson’s pick-up backing band and was blown away by his music.

“The blues is quite popular in Canada,” Rankin said. “We booked him here for a series of sold-out shows, and that’s when we knew we wanted to make the film. We actually started filming in Vancouver when he was here.”

The film has been in the works for some time, as most filming and conducting interviews in Clarksdale were delayed until 2022 due to the pandemic.

“What fascinated us about Super Chikan, besides being a real Delta blues artist born in Clarksdale, is that he makes his own guitars and diddley bows,” Wilson said. “That not only reinforces his individuality as an artist, but it defines his particular, unique sound.”

Another of Friday’s offerings is the Mississippi premiere of the feature documentary African Reasons by Brazilian filmmaker Jefferson Mello. The film explores how the blues and other genres have their roots in tribal African rhythms. Pontotoc bluesman Terry “Hamonica” Bean is one of three international performers whose stories are told in the film. Bean will perform live at the festival’s opening reception, and Mello will be in attendance.

A highlight of Saturday’s screenings is a short film by Oxford native musician Jimbo Mathus, who is known both for his prolific solo career and as part of the platinum-selling North Carolina retro swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers. The film, The Secret Life of Charley Patton, was made using marionettes Mathus crafted while serving as artist-in-residence at Clarksdale’s Shared Experiences USA.

“Throughout his life, Jimbo has made marionettes as a hobby,” Stolle said. “In fact, they show up in the liner note photos of the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ 1996 album Hot. He made those, so he’s been crafting them for at least 20 years.”

The film portrays seminal Delta bluesman Charley Patton, a figure Mathus not only connected with through his explorations of roots music, but one he also shared a special connection with. Rosetta Brown, who worked for Mathus’ family when he was growing up in Corinth, was the daughter of the famed bluesman. It’s a fact Mathus did not learn until much later, and the film is as much a tribute to her as it is to her father. Mathus will be in attendance and perform live before the screening.

Nolan Dean

On Saturday afternoon attendees can learn more about Film Delta, a new film production initiative founded by Helena, Ark.-based filmmaker Nolan Dean and hosted by Clarksdale’s arts education and workforce development nonprofit Grio Arts. The presentation will feature a short film created by students of a recent filmmaking workshop.

“It’s an initiative to grow the film industry in the Mississippi-Arkansas Delta,” said Dean. “We’re forming a production company to create original content, as well as grow and train local workforce through our partnership with Grio Arts. We know the Delta has a ton of assets that work for filmmaking—low cost of production, great locations, amazing culture. What’s needed is infrastructure and a labor pool.

“We recently did a basic production workshop as an experiment to gauge interest in the program, and what we came away with from that one day was a really well-done short film. It confirmed that we have talented people interested in pursuing film opportunities here that can flourish pretty fast with on-the-job training and mentorship.”

The next step for Film Delta is to produce a feature film Dean wrote the screenplay for titled Bluestown. It is planned to be filmed in Clarksdale to give on-the-job training to students of the initiative. A teaser will be shown at the festival. For more information, visit filmdelta.org.

The closing night film on Saturday is The Blues Society, a feature documentary about the legacy of the Memphis Country Blues Festival. The festival ran from 1966-69 and spotlighted blues performers whose stars had somewhat faded after achieving fame in previous decades, like Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Rev. Robert Wilkins. The film is directed by Augusta Palmer, who will be in attendance. She is the daughter of Robert Palmer, noted music critic and author of the influential blues book Deep Blues, which was the basis for the 1992 blues documentary of the same name that was filmed mostly in Mississippi.

Other offerings on Saturday include a concert film featuring Clarksdale native Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop that was recorded live at (and presented courtesy of) the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, Calif.; Born in Chicago, a feature documentary about the Windy City’s connection to the Delta blues; and King Bee: The Slim Harpo Story, a feature documentary about the Louisiana blues legend.

Finally, the festival closes out on Sunday with more live blues performances by Sean “Bad” Apple, Miss Australia “Honey Bee” Jones and Watermelon Slim.

“Basically we do a mini blues festival at Bluesberry Cafe in the afternoon,” Stolle said. “It’s always a really nice weekend and the slowest time of the year for tourism before we get geared up for the Juke Joint Festival in April, which is why we do it now to help sustain and support local businesses.”

For more information about the 14th Annual Clarksdale Film and Music Festival, visit clarksdalefilmfestival.com.