music reporter

Brewer's 'Moan' howls North Mississippi blues

The importance of music in Craig Brewer's new film "Black Snake Moan" is telegraphed by some key billing: Mississippi bluesman Son House, who died in 1988, receives a featured screen credit.

Brewer's Paramount Vantage feature arrives Feb. 23; its rich soundtrack album will be released Jan. 30 by New West Records. Brewer's 2005 breakthrough, "Hustle & Flow," was set in Memphis' rap scene (and won a best song Oscar, for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," for hometown rappers Three 6 Mafia). The director's forthcoming follow-up takes place in a small North Mississippi farm community, with some key action unfolding in a local juke joint.

Scott Bomar, who composed the scores for "Hustle" and "Moan" and supervised music on the new film, says the footage of Delta bluesman House that introduces and concludes the new feature was incorporated almost by chance.

"I sent it to the editor, Billy Fox, so he could study it," Bomar says. "He loaded that footage into the editing system. Craig just happened to see it and said, 'Wow, we need to put this in the film.' "

The images of House — a sometime lay preacher who also did time for murder — dovetail neatly with Brewer's plot about Laz (Samuel L. Jackson), a troubled retired bluesman determined to reform a promiscuous young woman (Christina Ricci). In a climactic scene, Laz returns to performing at the juke where he made his name.

Jackson can be heard singing on four tracks on the soundtrack album. "He had never really played guitar," Bomar says, "but just before we made the film, he received a Gibson Les Paul as part of his package at the Academy Awards. He'd played French horn in college, and his parents owned a juke in Chattanooga. So he had been exposed to music and instruments enough where he had a natural feel for it."

Some of the guitar parts played by Jackson's character were performed by some well-known Memphis-area musicians: Alvin Youngblood Hart; Kenny Brown, the late R.L. Burnside's longtime guitarist, who backs Jackson onscreen with Burnside's grandson, drummer Cedric Burnside; Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars; and Jason Freeman of the Bluff City Backsliders.

Jackson prepared for the film with a trip through Mississippi; he spent time in Clarksdale and Oxford and met juke joint vet Big Jack Johnson. "At the end of that trip, he became Laz," Bomar says. "He soaked everything up. He was transformed."

Bomar — a veteran of the Memphis bands Impala and the Bo-Keys who grew up on the music of such North Mississippi performers as Junior Kimbrough and fife-and-drum bandleader Othar Turner — has included plenty of indigenous music on the "Moan" soundtrack. R.L. Burnside, Bobby Rush and Jessie Mae Hemphill all add to the film's texture.

Director and fellow Memphis resident Brewer — whose screenplay was inspired by the 1927 Blind Lemon Jefferson song from which it takes its title — was specific about the music, Bomar says: "He knew exactly what he wanted. There were certain songs he was listening to when he was writing the script."

While not strictly a "blues film," "Black Snake Moan" is suffused with the feeling of the blues, just like the region in which it is set.

Bomar notes: "In the part of the world we're from, the music is a character here. It's a big part of our lives here. … Craig is a very regional filmmaker, and he's been able to use music to tell his stories."