Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story is a new documentary directed by John Anderson about the life of famous blues musician Paul Butterfield. The film traces his career from his beginnings in Chicago to his untimely death.
There’s no denying that Butterfield was a great musician, and he is definitely worthy of being honored. However, this documentary probably wasn’t the best way of doing that.
Butterfield’s story is (unfortunately) one that has been heard time and time again: a young musician comes from nothing, makes it big, gets caught up with drugs, experiences a decline in his career, and dies young. Sadly, this story is no longer interesting. The film could have been far more successful and entertaining had it focused on his music rather than his story.
That being said, the film does a good job of painting Butterfield sympathetically. Although his life story is a little typical, his career was not, and that allows the film to hold some amount of interest. Additionally, interviews with other people involved in Butterfield’s life, such as his son and his former bandmates, shine light on Butterfield not only as an artist, but as a person in general. This makes his story even more compelling.
The title refers to the harmonica, Butterfield’s instrument of choice. Because the harmonica is so frequently neglected, it is interesting to see a documentary that is so dependent on that style of music. Butterfield’s music is used frequently throughout, and it is very complex, appealing music. However, some of his songs are used more than once, meaning that the soundtrack does begin to feel tiresome at a certain point.
The execution of the film isn’t awful, but it’s too simple for a theatrically-released documentary. Stylistically, it feels more like a documentary that would be released on PBS than in theaters. Everything looks professional, which is good, but there is nothing particularly innovative about it. The Ken Burns effect is overused, the editing is rather plain, and the interviews are blandly-composed. Even the text used for titles is dull.
As a result of the uninteresting execution, the film is pretty boring as a whole. It feels like it was meant to be educative rather than for entertainment or to pay homage to the musician. Because the film has such a direct approach, it was quite hard to get invested in the story. The runtime that was just over an hour and a half instead felt much longer.
Overall, Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story was a frustratingly bland and by-the-numbers documentary. The music is interesting, but the film offers very little else for most viewers.
Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story opens in select theaters October 17.