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And This is Free

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  • Posted October 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    The Greatness And Diversity Of Maxwell Street

    If all you know about Chicago's Maxwell Street is that scene in "The Blues Brothers" movie where John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd see John Lee Hooker playing in the street, then you should check this movie out. "And This Is Free" is not one but two movies about the legendary Chicago block that became a consumer bonanza, an immigrant's hope, a huckster's paradise, a hotbed for preachers and of course, a launching pad for many blues musicians.

    The first movie was made in 1964 by Mike Shea. Shot in a black-and-white cinema verite style that recalls D. A. Pennebaker and The Maysals Brothers, "And This Is Free" captures a lot of what Maxwell Street was like just as the British Invasion was taking more than a few cues from the blues and making it big. We see a number of musicians who would become popular like Little Walter as well as a few who should have such as Johnny Young and Robert Nighthawk. However, we also get to see some terrific, spirited Gospel music by street preachers such as Jim Brewer and Carrie Robinson. In between all of this, we see people hawking things like The Rocket, guaranteed to make your car run faster without using too much gas. We see someone selling The World's Smallest Saxophone. We see a preacher who acts more like a hustler giving away Wise Man Incense. And then there's Casey Jones, The Chicken Man, a 80-something fellow who plays the accordian with a chicken on his head (and he gives a good performance until the police chase him away).

    The second film looks at the very early Maxwell Street at the turn of the 20th Century, when Jewish immigrants were coming to America and settled in the Maxwell area to open businesses and get a shot at the American dream. Some of them were successful, some were not. Much of the footage from the first film finds its way here as well because---and this is what makes this DVD so unique---there is a great feeling of camaraderie among these residents. There's a very good story of Lyon's Delicatessen, which started in the 1920's and its owner was forced to sell it off to a black man in the 1970's. Yet, the new owner spoke good Hebrew and kept the Kosher menu along with some soul food stuff.

    If this isn't enough for you, the set also comes with a CD of 17 songs from many of Maxwell Street's most prominent musicians. Most of it is blues like Snooky Pryor ("Cryin' Shame"), Arvella Gray ("John Henry"), Johnny Young ("Money Takin' Women") and Daddy Stovepipe ("The Spasm"). But it just so happens that there's a group called The Baby Face Leroy Trio which featured a musician named Muddy Waters---and we all know what happened to him.

    The old Maxwell Street is gone now; it was demolished in the early 1990's to make way for the expansion of a university. Still, if a business did well in Chicago, it's a good bet it got its start on Maxwell Street. If you heard good blues from the Windy City, chances are they played on Maxwell Street. The diverse influence was undeniable, as well the sensational music that came from here. You watch this DVD and even if you've never been to Chicago before, you really miss it.

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