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‘Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story’: Film Review

John Anderson’s doc tracks the career of blues harmonica star Paul Butterfield.

A member of both the Blues and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the late Paul Butterfield left a tremendous mark on both genres before he died of hard living at 44. A white man who didn’t let his race keep him from pursuing the music he loved, the harmonica player opened doors in both directions — helping introduce Woodstock-era white kids to Muddy Waters and other greats, while earning enough respect from his black idols that (for better and worse) a generation of white blues players followed in his tracks.

Clearly motivated by a fan’s love, John Anderson’s Horn from the Heart charts the step-by-step of Butterfield’s influential but short career, getting reminiscences from key characters like Elvin Bishop, Marshall Chess and Bonnie Raitt. Anderson, who previously made several Beach Boys/Brian Wilson video docs, is attentive to chronology and to Butterfield’s legacy, but isn’t making the kind of film that might win the artist new fans or magically transport older ones back to the moment when he was at the top of his field. Low-rent production values and a sometimes plodding pace are unlikely to attract much of a theatrical audience, but blues fans will be happy it exists once it’s on video.

Growing up in Chicago’s Hyde Park, Butterfield had black neighborhoods all around him, and the wealth of blues clubs that, in the 50s and 60s, were the heart of a transforming music. He became addicted to them. Even when he went off to college, Paul’s brother Peter recalls, he’d sneak back to Chicago without his family’s knowledge just to listen and play. By 1963, a white club owner on the North Side was savvy enough to give him a regular gig. He and Elvin Bishop played there with bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay, black musicians he’d stolen from Howlin’ Wolf’s band; his groups were integrated from the start, and as he later prepared for a tour through areas where some clubs were segregated, he told a black bandmate, “where you can’t go, we won’t go.”

Anderson spends some time recalling the debate over the introduction of electric instruments to acoustic idioms like folk and blues. It was Butterfield’s electrified band that backed Bob Dylan for his controversial 1965 Newport Folk Festival set. The amplification Butterfield had long embraced would spread quickly, as even legends like Waters experimented with rock sounds.

The film settles into a groove starting with the release of the bandleader’s widely praised first two albums, the latter of which, East-West, offered listeners crazed psychedelia and Indian raga alongside their Chicago blues. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band got a long booking at a Huntington Beach club where Steve Martin was the opening act; they clicked with uber-concert promoter Bill Graham, and the film suggests Butterfield was instrumental in getting him to put older blues greats in front of young white crowds.

The film’s storytelling starts to feel increasingly dry as Anderson follows the inevitable changes to the band (they were joined by young saxophonist David Sanborn, who says Butterfield “was a force of nature on that instrument”) and the leader’s relocation to Woodstock, where he found a home in that tight-knit community of artists.

Sadly, it gets even more familiar in its account of Butterfield’s increasing alcohol and cocaine use, which wrecked relationships. Wife Kathy recalls that he started to get “fragmented” before she and their son left him; his habits also led to peritonitis, a painful intestinal condition. His career was going south even before the start of the ’80s, an era that was “a tough time to be a blues musician.”

The film gets sentimental as it approaches Butterfield’s death, offering more elegiac late-period performance footage than it needs. For newbies and old fans alike, it’s the blistering early stuff we really came to hear.

Production company: PVB
Distributor: Abramorama
Director-Editor: John Anderson
Producers: John Anderson, Sandra Warren
Directors of photography: Stan Eng, Peter Trilling

95 minutes

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