Robert Mugge – Notes From The Road: A Filmmaker’s Journey Through American Music | Book Review

Robert MuggeNotes From The Road: A Filmmaker’s Journey Through American Music

The Sager Group LLC

364 Pages Paperback Edition

In a career that started in 1976, Robert Mugge has managed to create three dozen independent films. Most people think that filmmakers stand there, barking orders, and making sure everyone is doing their job. As you delve into Mugge’s chronology of his work, you quickly learn that view is far from reality, that making independent films goes well beyond being a labor of love.

With 25 films focused on various genres of American roots music, Mugge has spent his life in the pursuit of realistic documentation of music and the associated artists that are often well beyond the mainstream. His first music film, George Crumb: Voice Of The Whale, was a study of the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer centered on his composition for amplified flute, cello and piano. Fresh out of film school, the project helped the filmmaker learn skills that would serve him well in the future.

Across 11 chapters in his new book, the author delves into the various aspects of a film project, starting with obtaining sufficient financing. Mugge was often scrambling to finalize the finances while already beginning to shoot film footage, due to the timing of scheduling for various participants. While his films cost modest amounts compared to feature Hollywood films, that makes each dollar all the more important. But that is only the start of his responsibilities.

To give each project a structure, Mugge had to write out a rough story line that leaves room for the artists involved to express themselves in ways not yet imagined. He has to line up a crew and the necessary equipment, always keeping in mind the budget. Of course, there are also considerations for food, lodging, and travel for all parties involved. Then there are the unforeseen disruptions to the plan that invariably occur – weather issues, reluctant artists, equipment failures, and nervous investors.

Mugge covers it all with the grace of a wise sage who has been there, done that. In spite of his often tenuous circumstances, he has created a collection of glorious films like Deep Blues, a 1991 release that gave viewers a close-up look at the Mississippi juke joint culture. Funded by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics fame, the film had a troubled beginning that threatened to derail the film. But once Mugge smoothed things over, the project can came to life, turning into a critically acclaimed movie that featured artists like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Jessie Mae Hemphill, jump-starting their recognition around the world.

That film caught the attention of Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, who wanted Mugge’s help in celebrating the record label’s 20th Anniversary in 1992. There was a planned national tour that featured Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, Katie Webster, and Elvin Bishop. Shooting concert footage at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia before heading to Chicago to interview a number of the musicians and getting a tour of the Alligator operation from Iglauer, the filmmaker crafted Pride & Joy: The Story Of Alligator Records.

It was the first time his guiding principles, “ …to portray, preserve, and promote traditional forms of American music…” had been applied to an independent music label. The success of that film quickly lead to another project, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Rounder Records, entitled True Believers: The Musical Family of Rounder Records. Mugge traveled throughout the South, filming Rounder artists like Irma Thomas in New Orleans, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys at Festival Accadiens in Lafayette, LA, and Marcia Ball in Austin, TX.

While juggling the details of that endeavor, Mugge was attempting to get two other films made. One was funded by BMG Video, centered on the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual World of Bluegrass events in Owensboro, KY, featuring the legendary Peter Rowan. That film, Gather At The River: A Bluegrass Celebration, was suppose to feature Allison Krauss, at the time the brightest light in the world of Bluegrass, and the best selling artist on Rounder Records. Due to some sound issues on her film performance, Mugge was unable to include her in either film. Such can be your fate when filming on a tight budget and even tighter schedule.

The other film Mugge completed in that busy year was the classic Kingdom Of Zydeco, a film that celebrated the music of the Creole culture of Louisiana. It was centered on a concert that featured a good natured battle for the title of the “King of Zydeco” between Boozoo Chavis, one of the original pioneers of the music, and Beau Jocque, a younger accordionist with a modern sound that added traces of rock and hip hop to the the music’s blues roots. Viewers also get introduced to other key artists and famous venues like El Sid O’s Zydeco & Blues Club. Once again, Mugge is able to capture the essence of a musical form in transition, giving viewers a fine sampling of what makes zydeco so special. And to be able to compose three magnificent films in a one year period may be enough to qualify Mugge for musical sainthood.

In other chapters Mugge relates his experiences about the making of films on jazz legends Sonny Rollins and Sun Ra, another that celebrates the ministry of Rev. Al Green, the hit-making soul singer supreme who went back to the church at the height of his career. The director also fashioned two films, All Jams On Deck and Deep Sea Blues, that highlighted different aspects of the popular Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruises. Finished twelve years after Deep Blues, Mugge returned to the Mississippi Delta to chronicle the slow fade of the Last Of The Mississippi Jukes, centered on the famous Subway Lounge in Jackson, MI, and the new Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. One of the owners was the film star Morgan Freeman, and his part in the production went a long way towards obtaining the necessary funding for the endeavor.

Music fans owe Robert Mugge a debt of gratitude for his lifetime of work as an independent film maker. Readers of this outstanding book will come away with many levels of respect for his accomplishments, particularly as you come to understand the myriad of challenges that need to be dealt with and overcome, not by the staff of a movie studio, but by one man with a vision and, the will to turn those visions into films that make you care about the music and the artists who make it. This one comes highly recommended!

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