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Documentary paints vivid portrait of music ‘Born in Chicago’

Sam Lay 'Born Chicago.'

Sam Lay in "Born in Chicago."

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Updated: July 7, 2013 12:45PM

Only a spoonful of people know of the uplifting bridge between the North Side and the South Side.

The mid-1960s connection between the young white blues musicians of Chicago and the northern suburbs and the blues masters of the South Side made music history. The kids fueled their teacher’s spirits. The teachers taught their students well. It was beautiful.

The documentary “Born in Chicago” () goes deep into the muse of white kids such as the late Paul Butterfield, the late Mike Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Harvey Mandel and others. These hipster visionaries with dark sunglasses bonded with blues legends Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and drummer Sam Lay, the city’s most underrated living blues musician.

It took five loving years to make “Born in Chicago.” The doc clicks on several levels and drags in others. Musselwhite is an engaging storyteller who deploys Southern detail, and Siegel still delivers every memory with a new smile. Black-and-white footage of the forever young Bloomfield (1943-1981) is precious, and it establishes a kindred spirit with Jack White. White’s sense of adventure is what these young Chicago cats were all about. A huge fan of Howlin’ Wolf, White says, “Don’t tell me it is not the blues when you turn up more distortion.” (The blues are forever evolving, which is something to keep in mind as you peruse this weekend’s Chicago Blues Festival.)

And therein lies a problem in “Born in Chicago.”

The core group of the Chicago Blues Reunion tells long war stories and recounts some “should-have-beens,” such as Mandel missing out on a Rolling Stones tour even though he played guitar on “Hot Stuff” and “Memory Motel” fromthe 1976 issue “Black and Blue.”

The documentary is much better served with classic black-and-white footage of a menacing Mick Jagger tearing apart Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” in 1964 (when the Stones recorded at Chicago’s Chess Records, and met Dixon, Waters and Chuck Berry). (Tom Waits out-dueled Jagger last month on “Little Red Rooster” when the Stones played Los Angeles.)

Keyboardist Goldberg is co-producer of “Born in Chicago,” and he gets a lot of face time, none better than his memories of Big John’s, on North Wells, the first true blues club on the North Side and next to the original O’Rourke’s tavern.

Goldberg stands at the site of the current building and reminisces how it is the starting point for Paul Butterfield, and how Muddy Waters, Steve Miller and J.B. Lenoir woodshedded at the club. The moment become more poignant as the film reveals a lot of empty lots, boarded-up buildings (like Muddy Waters home on South Lake Park) and a silent Chess Records studio. A sad testament to how Chicago treats its musical legacy.

Narrator and fast-talker Marshall Chess says in the doc, “You cannot play music that hasn’t passed through Chicago.”

Besides White, “Born in Chicago” has some great but brief “gets.”

Bob Dylan pops in to pay homage to Bloomfield — who backed Dylan when he went electric with Goldberg at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan calls Bloomfield “the best guitar player I heard on any level.” By 1967, Bloomfield had left the Butterfield Blues Band to form the hard-charging brass/blues band Electric Flag, with Goldberg, Nick the Greek, the late Buddy Miles on drums, and others.

A mesmerized Keith Richards can’t quite put his finger on where the muse of Chicago blues comes from, leaving Eric Burdon to adroitly explain, “It is some kind of root of identification.”

As usual, Sam Lay is the secret weapon. Veteran Chicago director John Anderson (“Brian Wilson Presents SMILE,” “Joey Molland’s Badfinger” and a member of the Cleaning Ladys pop band) makes use of Lay’s remarkable collection of home movies. Lay’s story is a documentary waiting to happen.

Lay sits in a car parked in front of Muddy Waters’ vacant home and draws from his memories like a straw in a forgotten drink. The scene cuts away to a black cat in the front yard. Memorable stuff. Ain’t superstitious.

“Born in Chicago” has just enough moments like that to make you proud of where you come from.

Note: “Born in Chicago” makes its Chicago debut at 8:15 p.m. Friday at the Siskel Center, 164 N. State. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Lay, Harvey Mandel, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites and Corky Siegel.

Also: A snippet of “Born in Chicago” will be shown at a 7 p.m. Thursday concert at the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield. The Chicago Blues Reunion (Goldberg, Gravenites, Mandel and Siegel) will be joined by guests Eric Burdon of the Animals, Lonnie Baker Brooks, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Elvin Bishop, Musselwhite, Lay and surprise guests. Tickets are ($105) with VIP seating and a post-show meet & greet. Balcony is $65 and standing room is $35. The 21-and-over event benefits Chicago’s Coalition for the Homeless.

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