Writer-director-producer Robert Mugge reasserts his status as a music documentary pioneer with the spectacular 2007 effort Deep Sea Blues. Mugge's subject, on this occasion, is Legendary's all-star Rhythm & Blues Cruise - a perennial at-sea tour on a luxury liner that finds a veritable who's who of musical performers engaging in a week-long series of performances, accompanied by hundreds of fans. Mugge and his team joined the cruisers for the January 2007 event -which took passengers to such Caribbean locales as St. Barth's, St. John and Grand Turk - and documented much of what transpired on board.
This subject may seem narrow and specific on the surface, but Mugge wisely uses the event as a springboard to broader concerns. In particular, he shows how Rhythm and Blues Cruise proprietors Roger Naber and Judy Alexander have specifically designed the event as a unique and exciting tool to foster and further develop numerous aspects of blues culture. The film's candid interviews (featuring such performers as Bobby Rush, Tab Benoit, and others) establish, with complete clarity, the unique sense of camaraderie inherent in the blues community that emerges aboard each voyage. This theme culminates with a number of surprising and deeply moving revelations in the film, notably the insight that former Blues Cruise patrons have begun providing food and lodging in their homes to iconic musicians they've met on board the ship, and the disclosure that when one minor performer lacked the necessary funds to join the cruise one year, his fans and colleagues pitched in to pay for his ticket.
Mugge also uses his central subject to explore the complex and multifaceted nature of the blues itself. Within the framework of the cruise, the film succinctly and powerfully defines the blues as a form of personal expression, an idea evinced particularly strongly through performers such as Earl Thomas, whose overwhelming rendition of "Maybe in the Next Life" seems akin to a veritable outpouring of raw emotion on stage. The program then draws back to examine blues's relationship to neighboring genres. The performers on hand actually cover a surprising number of styles - not simply traditional blues, but Creole (Buckwheat Zydeco), Chicago soul and gospel (Otis Clay), southern soul/blues (Bobby Rush) and much more. Without ever saying so openly, Mugge uses the juxtaposition of these different styles to map out their interconnectedness within the American musical landscape, and shows how traces of each can be found aboard the boat, as a relative of traditional blues.
To a commendable degree, the film's variations - both in terms of varied genre, and more specifically, in terms of the varied personalities of the musicians themselves (particularly Leon Blue, who lights up the screen with a wordless boogie-woogie piano number, and the incredibly funny Taj Mahal, who hosts a cooking event before an on-board audience), keep things alive and hopping. As these segments are presented, they form a veritable cornucopia - a multicolored carnival of life that efficiently communicates the sheer pleasure of spending seven days on board the ship.
Stylistically, the performance segments cut back and forth between intense, emotionally overwhelming close-ups of the players and wide shots from the perspective of spectators, that - when combined - uniquely convey the experience of being on the vessel. In the film's most affecting segments - and there are many - Mugge lingers on specific performers for extended periods and lets the emotion of the tracks build to an overwhelming level.
In the final analysis, all of these elements blend together into a fluid and electrifying tapestry - not simply an homage to the cruise itself on Mugge's part, but an intimate understanding of everything it represents for players and fans, and a masterful ability to communicate that to the audience.