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Hellhounds on My Trail:

July 24 & 25 at the American Film Institute Theater

Soon after he co-founded Living Blues magazine 30 years ago, Jim O’Neal recalls in Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson, the publication hired a police sketch artist to produce a drawing of Robert Johnson. At the time, there was no known image of the legendary—and legendarily elusive—bluesman, who died in 1938. Employing a police artist was both practical and apt, for the mystery of the influential singer-guitarist’s life is the blues’ premier detective story.

Today, there are exactly two photographs of Johnson. That may not seem like a promising basis for a film, but Robert Mugge’s documentary is not the first movie on the subject. Pete W. Meyer’s 1997 Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? mixed documentary interviews with awkward re-enactments, and Walter Hill fictionalized Johnson’s myth as the basis for a teen coming-of-age flick in 1986’s Crossroads: Ralph Macchio played the kid who rescued a former colleague of the enigmatic bluesman from a nursing home before traveling to the intersection where a Johnsonlike bluesman sold his soul to the devil.

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Since Johnson himself is such a distant figure, the former colleague is a crucial element in most retellings of the musician’s story. Hellhounds on My Trail presents two people who knew him when: Robert Jr. Lockwood, Johnson’s stepson and musical heir, and Willie Coffee, a lapsed musician who went to school with Johnson in the early ’20s. The former appears, both performing and reminiscing, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum seminar that provides the framework for Mugge’s film; interviews with the latter are among the elements that Mugge, dissatisfied with the seminar footage, added to open up the documentary.

Most of the film recounts the seminar and accompanying concert, one of the semischolarly events with which the Hall of Fame tempers its principal roles as Cleveland tourist attraction and shrine to the music biz. The speakers include Peter Guralnick (author of Searching for Robert Johnson) and Robert Santelli, the Hall of Fame’s education director (and the film’s musical director); the performers include Lockwood, Bill Morrissey, Guy Davis, Keb Mo’, Peter Green, Chris Whitley, Honeyboy Edwards, Gov’t Mule, Tracy Nelson, Bob Weir, G. Love and Special Sauce, Sonny Landreth, and Rory Block, whose frantic slide-guitar work comes closest to channeling Johnson’s own distinctive style. All perform Johnson originals (including “Love in Vain,” “Crossroads Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” and “Walkin’ Blues”) except for Morrissey, who plays a song about the bluesman.

Mugge’s best films are those, not surprisingly, with live stars. The Washington-rooted documentarian had a cinematic blast following such performers as Al Green and Gil Scott-Heron for, respectively, The Gospel According to Al Green and Black Wax. Here he betrays his restlessness with aimless shots of the angular Hall of Fame building, I.M. Pei’s cheeseball knockoff of his own National Gallery of Art East Building.

Yet Johnson’s legacy endows even the most banal circumstances with intrigue. The seminar briefly crackles to life with the showing of a short film that promises to be the only footage of the musician. The short, a montage of African-American residents of Robinsonville, Miss., was made for the local theater, which used to show it every time it presented a program for “colored” audiences. Is that man strumming the guitar Johnson? The film provides a persuasive conclusion, but it’s too tantalizing a question to resolve here.

In the search of answers to other questions, Mugge follows Stephen La Vere to Mississippi and Arkansas, notably for a chat with Coffee. La Vere represents Johnson’s estate, and indeed created that estate by copyrighting songs (originally recorded in 1936 and 1937) that were influentially re-released by Columbia in 1961 as “public domain.” Now that musicians like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones are paying royalties for their versions of the tunes, there’s a tidy sum in escrow for the “eventual heir” of the childless Johnson. The film would have been enlivened by the comments of some of his putative heirs, but they don’t appear, presumably because lawsuits over the estate are ongoing. (La Vere says that the first relative he found was a half-sister who lived near D.C. in 1973, but nothing more is revealed about her.)

La Vere and Mugge also ask about the Faustian bargain with the devil Johnson is said to have made, trading his soul for great guitar-playing skill. Lockwood and Coffee are skeptical, although the latter says that Johnson told the tale himself. Even without possible satanic involvement, however, Johnson’s story is a murder mystery: Devotees of the legend are happy to believe that the musician was poisoned by a jealous cuckold. Mugge’s film doesn’t have the definitive answer to that one, but it does offer a plausible theory. So plausible, in fact, that fans of the myth may be disappointed. As Hellhounds on My Trail demonstrates, however, Johnson’s aura still has power—power enough to transform a mostly bloodless assembly of blues geeks into a meditation on 1930s Mississippi, a place that now seems impossibly remote and yet is with us still. CP

Mugge and Santelli will appear at these screenings to discuss the film.