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Blues icons past and present electrify in 'Lightning'

Lately, the blues has been having a miniresurgence. Last year, PBS bravely aired an epic documentary series called, definitively enough, ''The Blues." Right now, the No. 1 movie in America is ''Ray," about the architect who built new music out of old blues. And the most arresting pop song in the country is a collaboration between the rapper Nas and Olu Dara, his whimsical jazz-roots-music dad.

Whether any of these things inspires people to run out and experience Antoine Fuqua's concert film ''Lightning in a Bottle" remains to be seen. But I can't think of a good reason to avoid it. It's hugely entertaining.

Recorded in early February 2003, the movie rounds up an astounding number of musicians for a concert at Radio City Music Hall celebrating the history of the blues. The performers range from required royalty (B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt) and left-field players, like Macy Gray and Natalie Cole, to foul balls, like Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, who shred, unintelligibly, their version of the suitably suggestive ''I'm a King Bee." But even when the performances are bizarre, Fuqua, the director of ''Training Day" and ''King Arthur," upholds an infectious interest in the music, its origins, and its icons.

The movie exists somewhere between beginner and intermediate without becoming a disruptive tutorial. During the concert, a slide show recalls the disenfranchised atmospheres in which the blues was born: The structure takes us from Africa and slavery to the great Chicago migration, the civil rights movement, and beyond, to the sort of fertile territory where Chuck D can turn John Lee Hooker's ''Boom Boom" into an antiwar mosh. Between songs, the film cuts back to the week of rehearsals, where Steve Jordan, the show's music director and its enthusiastic drummer, casually explains the formal elements of the genre and rhapsodizes about artists he admires.

The backstage stuff is often pricelessly weird. When the elder stateswoman Ruth Brown shows up to rehearse, the boys in the house band, which include Dr. John on piano and Kim Wilson on harmonica, come over to give her love. (Brown had recently had a stroke.) She does a spirited version of ''(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean." It sounds fine. The boys especially liked it. But suddenly a woman comes storming into the space to chastise the band for playing too loudly over Brown. It's Odetta, the high priestess of folk, who really hasn't seemed all there since she won her National Medal of Arts five years ago.

To his immense credit, Fuqua understands the music enough to avoid mushiness and nostalgia. Anything wistful seems to have been banished. Instead, the movie is grounded in heartfelt comedy and, where Odetta is concerned, passionate surrealism. Besides, the performances would lead one to believe that the blues, as a popular music format, is as vital now as it ever was. The danger and contempt in Gray's rendition of ''Hound Dog" makes you wonder why she wastes her time with runny cosmic soul. The way Guy watches the French-Beninian siren Angelique Kidjo move as she wails Jimi Hendrix's ''Voodoo Child" is powerful and hot.

''Lightning in a Bottle" is full of these kinds of moments, not all of them as erotic -- though Brown's unbridled seduction of Bill Cosby, while south of sexy, is still very sweet. And there's a divinely photographed and edited number (''I Pity the Fool") between guitarist Robert Cray and the virtuosic belter Shemekia Copeland that kicks up a quiet storm. Anybody looking for a little thunder to go with all that lightning should find it roaring out of her mouth.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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