Robert Mugge loves making films, and he loves music, especially roots music like bluegrass and the blues, music that comes from deep in the soul in a very direct and honest way. His films feel that way, too.
In 2003, Mugge was deeply concerned about the state of Mississippi blues. Things were changing as performers aged and the jukes began disappearing. This concern led him to make The Last of the Mississippi Jukes.
The jukes, shabby buildings with little decor that cost very little to attend, sold a little food and a lot of liquor and were always jumping with music, are essential to the history of the blues. In Mississippi, they were where Robert Johnson gained his fame as a musician after his alleged meeting with the devil at the crossroads in Clarksdale. Through the years, they were the training grounds for artists like Alvin Youngblood Hart, Eddie Cotton Jr., B.B. King, and Bobby Rush. But by the turn of the century, they were vanishing.
This documentary begins with a note of hope, with the opening of what was at that time a brand new juke joint in Clarksdale, Ground Zero, which is co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman. Freeman talks to Mugge about his love for blues and the jukes from an early age and how important he felt it was to build a club that was true to the spirit of the original clubs.
Mugge continues that feeling of hope as he documents the outpouring of love and support from many artists in the attempt to save The Subway Lounge, an historical place for Mississippi blues located in Jackson, MS. Due to structural issues, the city planned to close the club down but many people came together to try to save it.
At this point, the film features a lot of wonderful music from performers like Hart, Cotton Jr., and Rush, as well as high-powered performances by Vasti Jackson and Patrice Moncell that will blow your socks off. Lots of other artists appear, and in between performances Mugge talks to club owners, photographers, city council members, and other people involved in the project to save The Subway. The film ends with the hope intact that the club might be saved and renovated, but ultimately that did not happen and the club was demolished.
Despite that sad outcome, the film remains both sad and hopeful, illustrating the deep commitment of so many people to Mississippi blues and its history. Enjoy it for the music, the personal stories, and its insight into what is a diminishing part of the history.
And yet, as long as people feel the need to drink, dance, and feel the blues in their bones, there will always be a juke joint somewhere.
Originally published by Rhetta Akamatsu at Blogcritics Magazine.