“And This is Free” review

I wrote this review of the classic 1965 documentary film “And This is Free” for Stomp & Stammer about a year ago, but since S & S didn’t archive it online, I’ll re-publish it here.  Shanachie reissued “And This is Free” on DVD in 2008, and hopefully now more people will discover this remarkable film, which I believe is one of the landmark documentaries of the 1960s.  For this review, I did an interview with Gordon Quinn, who is the only member of the film crew who is still living.  Gordon provided some invaluable insights about “And This is Free”.  I’ve embedded a clip from the film that I found on YouTube:  a street performance by the Chicken Man, one of the many bizarre characters that used to grace the Maxwell Street market in Chicago.

My pick for the DVD reissue of 2008 is Shanachie’s deluxe edition of the great 1965 documentary And This is Free.  The film had been out-of-print for several years but had developed an underground reputation largely because of its amazing musical sequences, especially one in a back alley that features the great bluesman Robert Nighthawk.

Mike Shea directed And This is Free.  Shea had established himself as a successful freelance photographer in the 1950s, and his work was regularly featured in Life, Time, and Ebony.  By the early 1960s, though, Shea was ready to transition out of photography, in part because of the downturn of the major photo magazines like Life and Look.  It was at this time that Shea met Gordon Quinn, who was an undergraduate at The University of Chicago.  They were both impressed by the new kinds of documentary films that were being made in the early 60s with the portable, untethered 16mm cameras and audio equipment.  Quinn later remarked on seeing these spontaneous, observation-based films with Shea, “We saw them together, and [Mike] was like, ‘This is it.’  This is what he had been waiting for his whole life to be able to make these kind of films.”

In August 1964 Shea and Quinn began shooting what would eventually become And This is Free.  Their location was the Maxwell Street market, located on the west side of Chicago.  They shot only on Sundays, the only day the Maxwell Street market was in full swing.   After about four months, they had amassed over twenty hours of film footage and countless hours of audio recordings.

And This is Free is revered by blues aficionados because it features some of the only film footage of Robert Nighthawk.  In fact, Robert Nighthawk was one of the central reasons why And This is Free was made.

Born in 1909 in Helena, Arkansas, Nighthawk was one of the early practitioners of downhome acoustic blues (he made his first commercial recordings in 1937).  He migrated to Chicago after the war and, along with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and others, helped to establish the sound and style of urban electric blues.  Waters and Wolf became recording stars on the Chess label in the mid-1950s, but Nighthawk never managed to establish more than a small regional reputation in Chicago and in Mississippi.   His passion for making records was limited, and he didn’t have the alluring stage presence of the Chess Records stars.  As Waters, Wolf, and the other Chess standouts performed at the large clubs in Chicago, Nighthawk continued to play at small bars and on Maxwell Street on Sundays.

During some of Nighthawk’s Maxwell Street jam sessions in the early 60s, he was joined by the young, white guitar prodigy Michael Bloomfield.  Unlike Nighthawk, who lived the quintessential blues life of rambling and hard times, Bloomfield grew up in a well-off family on Chicago’s North Side.  As a young teenager, he began frequenting the blues clubs of Chicago’s South Side and was periodically invited to come onstage to sit in with his musical idols.  By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bloomfield had become a fixture within the Chicago blues scene.  He managed a club, played in several different bands, and began to get steady session work.

It was during this time that Bloomfield met Mike Shea.  Shea was a serious jazz fan, and most jazz aficionados in the postwar era appreciated blues because it was viewed as one of the key ingredients in the development of jazz.  Bloomfield suggested that Shea film some of the blues performances on Maxwell Street, and, because Bloomfield knew almost all the blues musicians who played at the market, he offered to serve as a mediator between the film crew and the musicians.

Bloomfield played guitar alongside Nighthawk during the performances depicted in And This is Free, but Shea decided not to include Bloomfield in the frame when he filmed these scenes.  Gordon Quinn explains why Shea did this:  “Because [Bloomfield] was white, when we filmed down on Maxwell Street in some of those scenes on the back porch. . . [Shea] framed [Bloomfield] out of the picture.  [Shea] was very much into quote authenticity even though he was well aware that the traditional musicians had enormous respect for Bloomfield.”

In 1965, when And This is Free was quietly released, Bloomfield achieved major success as a member of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and a member of Bob Dylan’s first electric band.

Blues isn’t the only kind of music featured in And This is Free.  The most stirring performance in the film is the rendition of the gospel tune “Power to Live Right” by Jim Brewer’s street corner band.  Brewer and his band are steady, but it’s Carrie Robinson who steals the show, alternating between screechy singing and ecstatic dancing.

The “Power to Live Right” performance embodies the style and spirit of observation-based documentary films of the early 1960s, a genre which has to come to be known as direct cinema.  Like the famous moment in the 1960 film Primary, in which cameraman Albert Maysles films John Kennedy as the candidate makes his way through a crowded hall, Shea puts the viewer in the middle of the “Power to Live Right”  street performance through the use of long, mobile takes.

In many respects, And This is Free adheres to the basic style and strategies of early direct cinema—all the action is observed and not staged, subjects generally don’t interact on screen with the camera and the filmmakers, and there is no voice-over narration—but the film diverges from early direct cinema in one critical way: the intricate editing by Howard Alk.

Like Shea, Alk was a generation older than Quinn.  In 1959 he was one of the founders of The Second City, Chicago’s legendary improvisational comedy troupe.  At some point in the 1950s, he was taught film editing by Johnny Link, who had been editing Hollywood films since 1930.  In 1959 Alk edited his first major film, The Cry of Jazz.  Centered around the contentious (and fictitious) debates about jazz and race among black and white members of a Chicago jazz society, The Cry of Jazz includes stunning footage of jazz performances, most notably of Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

Alk’s editing in And This is Free is imaginatively associative.  Sometimes the associations are merely repetitions of words that help ease the transitions between scenes, like when Alk cuts from the performance of “Power to Live Right” to a salesman demonstrating sparkplugs who tells the assembled crowd, “When you talk about power, watch this!”  In other scenes, the editing associations are more complex and ambiguous, like when Alk cuts together shots of merchants selling old machine parts over a performance of the old folk tune “John Henry,” subtly tweaking the song’s message about the triumph of machine over man

And This is Free was conceived as a broad portrait of the Maxwell Street market where music was to be just one (albeit highly significant) part, but, in the editing room, Howard Alk emphasized the musicality of every aspect of street culture.  Gordon Quinn explains:  “We considered calling it ‘The Music of Maxwell Street,’ but we didn’t think it would convey what we meant because we meant the kid who plays the box, we meant the pitchman, we meant the guy who’s selling the little sparkplugs that you put in your car.   That’s a kind of music too.  We thought of it in a broader sense that there were a lot of people who were doing different kinds of performances on the street and we weaved those different things together and that those performances had a rhythmic quality and sometimes other qualities that made them a kind of music.”  Alk emphasized the internal rhythms of each performance and then assembled all the performances into one continuous forty-seven minute street symphony.  (Howard Alk greatly influenced Gordon Quinn, who went on to co-found Kartemquin, the documentary collective responsible for Hoop Dreams, among other notable films.)

Mike Shea had high hopes for And This is Free.  He sank nearly all his money into the project and hoped that it would get him established as a documentary filmmaker.   Unfortunately, though, the film had very limited success and was seen by very few people.  The educational television station in Chicago at the time even refused to air it.  Part of the film’s failure can be attributed to Shea’s naiveté about the film industry but also because, in 1965, there was very little infrastructure for theatrical documentaries.  In a few short years, with the success of documentary filmmakers like Emile de Antonio, D.A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles Brothers, that would begin to change, but, in 1965, there wasn’t much of a market for theatrical documentaries, especially one that was only forty-seven minutes long.

Although it was widely neglected upon release, And This is Free slowly developed an underground reputation over the years, partly because countless music documentaries have used clips from the film, including Martin Scorsese’s blues series from 2003.  Perhaps now, with this new deluxe Shanachie edition, And This is Free will be recognized not just as one the best films about Chicago blues and gospel music but also as one of the landmark documentary films of the 1960s.


7 Responses to ““And This is Free” review”

  1. Sharon La Cruise Says:

    Dear Mr. Bransford –

    Thanks for sharing such a rich and fascinating history. I’m a documentary filmmaker trying to locate Mike Shea to license some of his Ebony photos. Do you know what happened to him? Is he still alive, does he have an estate?

    Thank you – Sharon

    • stevebransford Says:

      Mike Shea died in 1995 filming a helicopter sequence for a rock music video. Extra sad because he supposedly hated rock music. I think Shea’s son helped with the DVD re-issue of And This is Free, so he might be a good person to contact in regard to Mike’s Ebony pictures.

  2. Sharon Says:

    Hi Steve,

    That is very sad and ironic. I had a feeling he was no longer with us. Thank you so much for information on his son. Do you know his name? I’ve tried Google to locate Shea or relatives but his name is some what common so it’s difficult to know if they are relatives.

    Thanks- Sharon

    • stevebransford Says:

      Try Gordon Quinn with Kartemquin Films in Chicago. He was the sound recordist on the film and I believe worked with Shea’s son on the DVD reissue.

  3. Sharon Says:

    Thank you!

  4. Elisha Castleton Says:

    I added your blog to bookmarks. And i’ll read your articles more regularly!

  5. Augenoperationen Says:

    Great post. Site is bookmarked. Regards

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