Friday, September 21, 2007

IFP: Hot Flash

Blues artists usually are not considered good human interest stories by the media, but Saffire—"the Uppity Women of the Blues," were obviously different. They received a lot of attention for being a multi-racial trio of late middle-age women, who happened to be blues musicians. To Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, they were blues musicians first and foremost, who would become one of the top selling acts on his label. Their career trajectory is traced out in Hot Flash, an entertaining a short documentary (39 minutes) screened at IFP, which takes its name from one of Saffire’s best regarded recordings (clip here).

Despite their blues chops, Saffire built a large following outside traditional blues circles, based on their message of empowerment for women. They also have a flare for ribald humor, following in the venerable tradition of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. (If you can’t pick up on what they are singing about in a tune like “Silver Beaver,” I don’t know what to tell you.)

Iglauer signed them simply because he enjoyed their demo, and thought he could do maybe a tad better than break even on their record. It surprised him by becoming a breakout hit (by blues standards). One of the intriguing things about the film is that it comes at a time when their commercial reception is cooling. According to Iglauer, they have cut back on touring due to family concerns, which has had a discernable effect on their sale of CDs. Iglauer frankly states he is unsure if Alligator can continue to record the group. One can hope that the film will generate publicity for Saffire and keep them profitably under contract for some label. As viewers see in the film, they are talented, legit blues artists.

Briskly directed by Sarah Knight, Hot Flash covers a great deal in a short period. My only complaint is one I have with many musical documentaries—there are no complete musical performances shown in their entirety, unedited and not drowned out by off-camera interview subjects. After all, their music is the most important part of their story and at least one full tune would give audiences a feel for attending their shows.

Saffire has a story worth hearing, and Hot Flash tells it with economy and humor. As is the case with Saffire’s music, the film should have an appeal well beyond the traditional blues audience.