New to DVD

By Michael Endelman
Updated October 24, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

For its latest cultural compendium, PBS decided against the time-honored, but often tedious, Ken Burns approach in favor of something a bit more sexy. Executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, ”The Blues” series features seven directors examining this quintessentially American musical genre from various angles — narrative documentary, personal memoir, rambling art film. The simpler, more focused documentaries are the most compelling: Scorsese’s general overview (”Feel Like Going Home”), Mike Figgis’ examination of the U.K. scene (”Red, White & Blues”), and Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner’s sophisticated oral history (”The Road to Memphis”) are the must-sees. By contrast, Clint Eastwood’s ”Piano Blues,” a love letter to boogie-woogie pianists, feels more like an amateurish fan flick than a serious documentary. The more unusual attempts — Charles Burnett’s ”Warming by the Devil’s Fire,” a mix of acting, first-person reminiscence, and archival footage, and Wim Wender’s sluggish, impressionistic, faux-vintage ”The Soul of a Man” — are almost painful to watch. And the film that might challenge the listening habits of PBS’ Volvo-and-Montessori demographic, Marc Levin’s ”Godfathers and Sons,” a rap-meets-blues lovefest, is hurt by its 133-minute running time and pedantic tone.
EXTRAS Ironically, the Wenders disc has some of the best bonuses, including new performances by Lou Reed and Cassandra Wilson. And if too much history makes you sleepy, most of the discs have a feature to skip the narration and interviews and get to live shows by Muddy Waters, Son House, B.B. King, and others. ”Feel Like Going Home”: B+; ”Red, White & Blues”: B+; ”The Road to Memphis”: A-; ”Piano Blues”: C; ”Warming by the Devil’s Fire”: C; ”The Soul of a Man”: C+; ”Godfathers and Sons”: B