Blues documentary ‘Born in Chicago’ finally arrives after more than a decade of woodshedding

Movie focuses on the genre’s elders mentoring young turks including Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield in the 1960s.

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Nick Gravenitas performs at a 2008 Chicago Blues Reunion concert featured in “Born in Chicago.” The film takes its name from a song Gravenitas wrote for Paul Butterfield.

Shout! Studios

The Chicago blues, a quintessentially African American art form, was consciously coopted by young, white musicians. The Delta-born progenitors reacted not with contempt toward the copycats from the suburbs, Hyde Park and beyond, but with willing acceptance of their role as mentors.

It could happen only in the kumbaya 1960s, and modern-day retellings tend to focus on the cultural and geographic boundary-erasing aspects of the phenomenon. But hey, the kids could really play, and when they heaped praise on their heroes, the fallout created a windfall for older Black artists.

Suddenly Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other veteran bluesmen from the South and West Sides found themselves with lucrative gigs on the North Side, as well as the burgeoning festival circuit and the nation’s biggest rock clubs. Major record labels also came calling.

“Born in Chicago,” a retooled documentary that premieres Tuesday on multiple streaming platforms, including YouTube, Google Play and Amazon Prime, began life as a simple concert film. The original version captured a 2008 live performance by Corky Seigel, Harvey Mandel, Barry Goldberg and Nick Gravenites, along with special guests. These onetime young turks, looking to rekindle old musical flames and jump-start their careers, banded together 15 years ago as the Chicago Blues Reunion. An expanded version of that film was released in 2013, helmed by documentarian John Anderson of La Grange.

“I first got wind of [‘Born in Chicago’] in 2012 or ‘13 when I was making a documentary about Mike Bloomfield,” said Bob Sarles, who completed “Sweet Blues,” his film about the late mercurial North Shore-bred guitar virtuoso, in 2014. Sarles shares the directing credit on “Born in Chicago” with Anderson, whose own blues biopic “Horn From the Heart” explores the career of Bloomfield’s bandleader and Chicago running mate Paul Butterfield.

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Mike Bloomfield, a key figure in “Born in Chicago,” performs in New York with his band Electric Flag in 1967.

Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“I didn’t have the money to make the movie I wanted to make. I knew that it was going to cover a lot of the same ground as this ‘Born in Chicago’ film that I was hearing about.

“In about 2016, Richard Foos [executive chairman of Shout! Factory] contacted me to ask me to help them finish ‘Born in Chicago.’ It was a personal labor of love for Richard, who paid for it out of his own pocket because he believed in the project.”

Working from a taut script by Joel Selvin, ”Blues Brothers” star Dan Aykroyd supplies the straightforward narration,

Sarles completed principal work on “Born in Chicago” in 2018, but there was more to be done. “We were going through the process of licensing all the archival material and paying for all the photos and such. During the first year of Covid they made a sale to Sky Arts, an arts-focused channel in Europe. They didn’t recoup all their money, but it gave us enough to finish the film. In 2021 I decided to try to get some traction on the film festival circuit. We got into more than a dozen festivals, and it’s been getting very good word of mouth.” The local premiere came in June at the Chicago Cultural Center during blues fest weekend.

The blues cognoscenti will note a familiar format with “Born in Chicago,” from vintage footage of the Loop and L trains to the many rock and blues luminaries who weigh in with sweet-home testimonials to the fathers and sons of Chicago blues. Many of the performance clips are more obscure, especially those provided by Butterfield and Chicago Blues Reunion alum Sam Lay.

Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Bob Weir, Eric Burdon, B.B. King and Buddy Guy are all among the talking heads, while Steve Miller, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite add context with tales of their woodshedding days in ‘60s Chicago. Bloomfield and Butterfield, who took their elders’ music to new heights, figure prominently in this story, although they both died young in the 1980s.

The film moves at a breakneck pace as it covers the waterfront in its 77 minutes, and completists might wish it could find one more life as a miniseries or at least a five-hour director’s cut. But Sarles said this is the final version.

The ”Born in Chicago” title, taken from an early Butterfield standard penned by Gravenites, was a natural. Sarles offered an explanation for why the song still resonates with blues lovers: “It’s Nick’s autobiographical story. It’s a story about a young punk growing up in a tough neighborhood full of juvenile delinquents and misfits. There’s something young and dangerous about it.”

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