Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Paradise Boogie is a locally made documentary tracing the history of blues in Detroit from the 1930s to today. There is no narration or fancy visuals; it is a straight-forward look at how the blues came to Detroit and how the city and its music industry has changed over time. Its story is told by local blues musicians, young and old. There is not a ton of depth to the movie, and it does seem to repeat itself a bit in its back half, but many of the anecdotes are quite interesting. It paints a decent picture of this world. I knew very little about Detroit music outside of Motown before I watched this and, while it is kind of dry, I still learned a lot. It is a mildly cool history lesson.
The blues initially came to Detroit via people migrating from the south. Eventually, a new sound was developed that was unique to the area. The sections of Paradise Boogie featuring veteran blues musicians reminiscing about their first exposure to it and how they became connected to various groups are the best parts of the movie. Directors Lisa Hagopian and Eric Harabadian got a diverse and enthusiastic selection of interviewees with much to say about a subculture of the local music industry. They provide more of an introduction to this world than an examination of it, yet it can occasionally be pretty enlightening.
Since music is such a large part of the human experience, it is also a good way to discuss race and cultural identity in the city over the last century. The focus is not on that, though it is there in the recollections. It is not presented as a specifically racial thing. People came to Detroit from the south as well as from Europe. As the city evolved, so did its sound. Exploring history through a small lens can potentially be just as effective as a wider view. There are moments here that do that successfully.
I appreciate the simplicity of the approach here. Some documentaries want to change minds or bring attention to an overlooked issue. Others want to say “Hey, here is something neat you might be unaware of!” Paradise Boogie is that type of documentary. It is about showing love to a subject that, to my knowledge, has never really been looked at on film before. It is a guided tour, not an exposé. It is a brief overview with some worthwhile information. It brings the blues out of the shadow of Motown and into the spotlight.
Paradise Boogie is far from the most purely entertaining doc I have seen this year, however that does not negate its value for those (like myself) unfamiliar with this world. The movie comes off as a very well-meaning love letter to the Detroit blues scene. Sometimes that spirit makes its way to the viewer, sometimes it feels like it is just preaching to the choir. But if the filmmakers’ intention was to inspire Detroit-area residents to go see these people perform in person, I think it will serve its purpose well enough.
3 out of 5
Directed by Lisa Hagopian and Eric Harabadian