Customer Reviews: The Howlin' Wolf Story - The Secret History of Rock & Roll
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on July 12, 2004
Chester Burnett aka Howlin" Wolf was one of the giants of Blues (Literally!). His music set the standard for the whole Blues genre and led the way vis-a-vis the British Invasion for the 1960s Blues Revival that led to Hendrix, Heavy Metal, Jazz-Fusion, Funk, Rap and so on. Wolf's music was interesting and more varied than any other Bluesman at the time (witness "Evil", "Spoonful", "Back Door Man" and "Little Red Rooster", all are different, unlike most of Muddy's tunes (except ones like "Walking In The Park"). The Wolf was an innovator and a good writer too. Willie Dixon actually wrote tunes for Wolf like he would have written for himself! Interesting!

I had the pleasure of seeing Wolf live in New York in 1967 at the famous Cafe au Go Go's Blues Bag. I will never forget it. The band started playing "Smokestack Lightning" and Wolf came out with the spotlight BEHIND him looking like a mountain! He was the standard for all blues singers-rock not gospel like B.B. or soul, like Albert King. He was a great entertainer too.
When the Wolf tribute band (Hubert Sumlin and Mojo Buford) came to Australia in 1991 I saw them. I got to meet Hubert, told him about my seeing Wolf in 1967 and he hugged me!! What a thrill!

Well this DVD is fabulous and historical. It has a lot of extras and a good lenght (90 min). I have to give it four stars because as a 40 year Blues fan I would have expected more film clips of his performances and if you couldn't find anymore this DVD should have included more bits from his American Folk Blues appearances (there is only one on this DVD). In Scorsese's "Blues"(Road To Memphis) he has a curious version of Wolf doing "Evil" which is not in this DVD!

The main reason why I gave this four instead of five stars is that there is not any new or complete concert footage or new tunes. The tunes shown in Black and White have all been released on the Vestapol DVD: "Devil Got My Woman" (This footage has already been used a lot e.g. "Lightning in a Bottle" and the "Blues" series by Scorsese) along with rare footage of the great Skip James (get this is it actually better than this DVD!)

I was expecting some newly released footage of Wolf in color from some of his many appearances in the late 1960s and early seventies. Let's face it, like with the great Albert King-footage of these great Blues Innovators needs to be released in concert format- Like Albert's Ann Arbor Blues Festival set and Wolf's many Blues festival appearances like the Chicago Blues Festivals of the late 1960s.

The rest of the film is superb. Sam Lay's home movies and getting to see where the club was that Muddy and Wolf had played at is great (today it's a vacant lot!!). The interviews with his daughter's are also interesting, it seems like Big Wolf was much more a family man than Muddy (see "Can't be Satisfied" DVD). Overall this a wonderful addition to one's music library at a reasonable price.
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on October 30, 2003
In a time when we are bombarded with rapid-fire cutting and frustratingly brief snippets of footage it is refreshing to see a documentary that allows us to spend some time with it's subject matter-- in this case Chester Burnett AKA Howlin'Wolf. I have never seen this much footage on this legendary performer in any one place. If you're a fan of Wolf or the blues, I cannot recommend this film more highly. This DVD is like a Howlin' Wolf performance- you get your money's worth!
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on October 30, 2003
This is a concise, affectionate and well-researched documentary on one of the true giants of the blues. It includes contemporary interviews with Wolf's family and friends and bandmates (including the great Hubert Sumlin) and rare footage of Wolf in his element (including some great full color shots of south side Chicago night clubs, as well as the famous Shindig show, introduced by the Rolling Stones.) It's too bad Wolf didn't live long enough to reap the rewards his rival Muddy Waters did. Still this film goes a long ways to putting Wolf's career in perpective, i.e., among the greats.
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on December 11, 2004
I watched this Documentary right after finishing the Howlin' Wolf biography "Moanin' At Midnight" written by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, so I have to start by saying that the book is a masterpiece in Blues literature. It reads like a biography should, and not just the compilation of random facts and educated guesses that most Blues biographies are. It ranges from comical to moving (a rarity in Blues Bio's)and tells a great story in the process. This DVD was a real letdown in comparison. There were some high spots. Sam's Lay's silent home movies were cool (seeing the Wolf and Sumlin on stage with Sonny Boy and Little Watler in the audience), as well as parts of the documentary throughout, but I was confused as to why they relied so heavily on the footage from the makeshift juke joint at the Newport Festival. There's a lot of better Wolf performance footage out there, like the remainder of the European tour footage that wasn't used here. I've never seen footage where Wolf's own performance wasn't top notch, but the other players were out of tune and at their sloppiest here. Besides that, way too much effort was put into showing how badly Son House had deteriorated. They came back to the subject several times and I thought it was cruelly unnecessary. We all know he was a pitiful drunk at the end, and a disappointment to Wolf who had idolized him, but this point could have been made in one short statement. Did they bother to showcase how great he was in his prime (or could still be when sober)? No, because this movie wasn't about Son House (although I wondered at one point and had to check the title on the box). The juke footage was shot within a few years of the Son House footage that Yazoo Records released in their "Masters Of The Country Blues" series. It's a wonderful performance. Even though he was old and things weren't working the way they had 30 years earlier, there was still a lot of power and passion in the performances and a quiet dignity in the man. It's just too bad that the producer (Joe Lauro) and director (Don McGlynn) of the Wolf documentary seemed determined not to leave him any. Aside from that, it was an ok film. Hubert Sumlin's spots were entertaining as well as the interviews with Hubert's ex and Wolf's stepdaughters. I would like to rate this DVD higher, but if you want a great story, read the book. As a biography this movie only touches on spots and leaves so much out. If you want to see the best Wolf footage, you'll only see some of it here.
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on July 20, 2005
I am new to the DVD market, so this is the first time I saw Wolf on a film. Such a thrill !!! I read about him being a great performer, but there's a difference when you actually see it. The movie starts with his only TV performance, when the Rolling Stones demanded it as a condition for their own participation. It has something to say about American society then, when a group of white British musicians who admittedly attempted to copy Wolf (and Muddy and others)had much more power in America than their black objects of admirations. It is interesting to see Wolf in that show, playing "How many more years". He starts quite reservedly, then starts to move like he would in a juke-joint. Except in a juke joint many would move like him and with him, and here on mainstream TV there are girls who clap their hands.
There is a sort of confrontation between son House and Wolf, based on House's being drunk and interrupting Wolf's session. The things Wolf tells House are surprising, but I always felt that after the 40's House was a broken man, and sounded like it.
A great moment to me is when Bukka White plays, and Wolf leans towards him and asks questions. Bukka answers the questions in singing, and it adds another dimension to the music. This reminds me of something I saw in African bars, when the singer responds to the crowd without stopping to sing, blending his responses with the music. A lost art.
Well, see this movie for yourself !
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on September 21, 2008
I have reviewed several of Howlin' Wolf's CDs in this space previously and had expected that this documentary about the life, the times and the influence of this incredible blues performer would merely be an appetizer for further reviews of his music. Not so. This well-done, lovingly put together and extremely informative documentary is a worthy viewing for the novice and old Wolf aficionados like me. Thus, rather than placing this commentary as a tail to some other Wolf entry it is worthy of separate entry here.

In this presentation filled, as always in this kind of work, with the inevitable "talking heads" we go from Wolf`s roots down in the Mississippi Delta, cotton country and nothing else, in the 1920's and 1930's through to the first stop up the Mississippi at Memphis on to the Mecca Chicago in the post- World War II period and finally to international renown in the blues revival started by the likes of The Rolling Stones in the mid-1960s. In short we are treated to a view of the trajectory of Wolf's life; unlike let us say Son House with whom Wolf worked with in the old days who stuck with the country roots, from country blues of the back road jukes to the electricity of the urban ghetto that made those old blues jump for at first migratory urban blacks and then young whites like this reviewer. Along the way many of the musicians that worked with Wolf like Hubert Sumerlin, a blues guitarist legend in his own right, and Sam Lay as well as Wolf's daughters, the Chess Record producer Marshall Chess and others give some amusing stories and anecdotes on the life of the great bluesman. And seemingly as always when blues or rock and roll are mentioned little segments with the ubiquitous Sam Phillips of the well-known Sun Recording studio in Memphis.

I do not generally comment on (or for that matter look at) the special features sections of DVD. Not doing so here would be a mistake. There is some nice home movie footage, some interesting Wolf stories by his companions and rivals, a nice segment on the rivalry between Wolf and Muddy Waters to be "King of The Chicago Blues" and a recording of a radio broadcast of Wolf doing Little Red Rooster. Damn, I flipped out the first time I heard that song when it was covered by The Rolling Stones in the early 1960's. I also flipped out when I first heard a Wolf recording of it. I don't know what I would have done had I heard it on my radio then. Probably started hitchhiking for Chicago.

All of this information is nice but I am sure the reader is just as interested to know about the music. Oh yes there is some great footage of classic Wolf efforts. Of course for this reviewer number one is always Wolf's Little Red Rooster. Christ, he is practically eating the harmonica by the end of the song. Lovin' Spoonful, Moaning at Midnight and a host of other songs get their usual Wolf professional treatment. That is a point to be underscored, he was a professional in his approach to the music, its presentation and the way that he could influence a genre that he practically build (along with his competitor Muddy Waters) from scratch. If you need an hour of the Wolf doin' his Midnight Creep then you really have to see this documentary. Kudos to the filmmakers on this one.
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on September 17, 2015
I grew up listening to my dad's old blues and jazz records---most of the artists' records came in plain brown sleeves stamped 'race'. Who knew or even thought about race in my little southern California desert town. We were all in the same boat---the Mexicans, the Negroes, the Caucasians, the 2 Chinese families---we all had to work for a living, go to school, stay out of trouble, go to church on Sunday, and listen to great music. Oh, there was the odd scuffle on the playground, but truly, we didn't think about race the way it was thought of in the South or East.

Howlin' Wolf scared me as a kid. First, the name. Second, the sound---he SOUNDED like a wolf in a trap. Then I saw a picture of him towering over his band. He sounded to my little kid ears like a primal scream, and I suppose it was. My dad called me the week he died to tell me that he'd passed, and I remember thinking I needed to listen again. My dad always knew the back story on these old bluesmen. I suspect that was because there was another aficionado who nurtured my dad's jazz and blues habit, Cal of Cal's Records in Riverside, California. Call'd tell my dad, "Here's one you'll like," and pull the plainly wrapped race record from under the counter.

This dvd has marvelous interviews with Wolf's adopted daughters, bandmates (most passed now) and friends who show what a regular guy Wolf was---like those I grew up with, he worked hard, avoided booze, drugs, and female entanglements, had longtime tight friendships, loved his wife and daughters, nurtured young talent, and just happened to be one of the greatest bluesmen ever.

His life is not only a story of how to follow your passion, but how to keep your wits about you doing it! He lived modestly, never drove a flash car, never had leeches hanging around, had a modest house, and friends all around him. He owned the rights to his songs---unheard of for most musicians, let alone black musicians of a narrow audience. He paid his band on time and a living wage.

This dvd is a wonderful look at a marvelous musician who wasn't nearly as bad as his howl---but, oh! What a wonderful HOWL!!!
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on September 9, 2010
A fine story of the late, great Howlin' Wolf. Not only does this video provide an in-depth look at the Wolf, it also serves as a more than adequate overview of the blues scene in general during its heyday of the 30's, 40's and 50's...and 60's! Blues took a big backseat to the British Invasion and the blossoming folk scene in the 60's, but the Wolf was one of the very few bluesmen who managed to stay busy and in the limelight during that decade, what with his appearance on the Shindig! TV show at the insistence of the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones were already popular back then, but it's very poignant to see the Stones sitting with the rest of the audience during Howlin' Wolf's set, showing the audience hey, welcome to Rock and Roll's the real deal, one of the SOURCES of our music...WE learn from HIM! That's why we're sitting here in the audience with you!

Great original music from the Wolf himself is featured throughout the film, in the form of both performances and background music. How many of us know that Howlin' Wolf was a very good slide guitarist? He exposes that secret in some classic footage of him performing in an informal setting with a drunk Son House getting a little too carried away as a spectator (he was only human), to the chagrin of the Wolf. :-)

I had to rush out and purchase the Howlin' Wolf London Sessions album after hearing some tasty tidbits from those sessions in this film! Recent interviews with the living legend Hubert Sumlin are also included, and add plenty of insight into the story of his boss's life. Even the extra features are interesting! Some old home movies of the Wolf and other Chicago bluesmen (including a couple of seconds of the rarely filmed Little Walter) shot by Sam Lay comprise one of the bonus extras. Watch for part of those movies that show the Wolf standing next to Albert King--awesome! Lay's recount of how he was fired from Wolf's band and then hired back again is quite hilarious!

For anyone interested in Howlin' Wolf's music, or blues music in general, this DVD is a MUST HAVE!!
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on October 24, 2003
I saw a festival screening of this AMAZING Blues documentary....why it wasn't included in the lame MARTIN SCORCESE'S
PRESENTS : THE BLUES series I do not know (perhaps cause most of the series WAS so lame!)....maybe because the filmmakers are REAL blues scholars and serious documentarians of American Music ..unlike the dilitants and celebrities who were choosen to directed most of the Scorcese films.(Clint Eastwoood, please, give me a break...not much relevance to blues in his flabby 90 minutes!)
HOWLIN WOLF is nodoubt one of the most awe-inspiring performers and he is shown in some really amazing and rare clips throughout his,( Where did director Don McGlynn and Producer Joe Lauro FIND this amazing footage??).. they some how are able to also expose the sensitive HUMAN side of this blues god!....a REAL indept look at one of the true all time legends of the Blues.
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on March 1, 2004
If you are a Howlin' Wolf fan or a Blues fan or a documentary film fan, this DVD gets 5 stars on all 3 levels. It is just beautifully done and I don't think I could find one negative thing to write about it. Too bad it is not easily available for all to see it. The closest music documentary I have seen in quality is Buena Vista Social Club.
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