If you, dear reader, are wondering how a blues record company based out of Chicago gets the name “Alligator Records,” it’s because the founder of that company can chatter his teeth along to songs. The “alligator” association has stuck with him to the point where his office is filled with alligator toys, trinkets, and memorabilia that fans from across the country send him, and he’ll wear a goofy alligator hat with pride.
Pride and Joy: The Story Of Alligator Records is 50% concert film, 50% documentary. Originally released in the early ’90s, it’s being released on DVD/Blu-Ray for the first time ever, and it’s a solid look at Chicago blues. The film alternates between clips showing the inner workings of Alligator Records and concert footage from the Alligator Records anniversary concert. Every part of this film — from the subjects interviewed, to the concerts shown, to the way it was filmed — was out of love, and it shows. Pride and Joy as a film is just like the blues: rough, raw, unpolished, and unapologetically honest.
If you take nothing else from this film, it’s that Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records and blues expert, knows the blues. He chronicles how Alligator Records went from a proverbial to somewhat-literal garage operation into one of the best known independent blues record labels in the world, both when this was first filmed in the early ’90s and today. Iglauer talks about the genre with such love and care; he clearly got into the business through his love of the blues. He has a way with words and is able to describe why he loves the blues in terms anyone can understand. He knows the genre so well that he’s able to make some phenomenal parallels. At one point, he refers to the Paul Butterfield Band as the “American version” of the Rolling Stones, and I realized I couldn’t disagree.
A point driven home time and time again is how Iglauer takes care of the people signed to his label from recording to marketing. Filmmaker Robert Mugge follows this as a documentarian, and throughout the film, we get a pretty good idea of what each of Alligator Records’ signees are like as people. We pick up that Donnie Brooks is more technically proficient, but his father Lonnie plays smoothly and naturally after years of experience. We learn about the history of blues from those who lived it. We learn what Alligator employees are like in their roles. It feels close and warm.
Iglauer, at one point in the documentary, acknowledges that his primary audience has always been a largely white, middle-class, public-radio-listening group (one that, admittedly, your humble scribe fits into perfectly) and has struggled to reach an urban audience. Admittedly, I don’t know if this filmed helped much with that when it was first released, but I doubt it will help with it now. Whether any non-blues fans would be converted after watching this, I can’t say for sure, but this is clearly for people with an interest in music history more than anything.
One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary transcends the content itself — it’s watching how things have aged. Iglauer notes that Alligator’s content was mostly on CDs but was also distributed on tape and vinyl for the many collectors that were part of his regular audience. I’d love to see a follow-up where he talks about how digital downloads and streaming have changed things. Either way, I can’t imagine too many people are asking for tapes unless the pencil industry is lagging and need to resurrect a use.
The concert itself is a gem. Bluesmen and women out there with nothing to prove having the time of their lives playing for an enthusiastic crowd. The most recognizable name on the roster is Elvin Bishop, a white bluesman from the Paul Butterfield Band. He’s had a solid career to those who know him, and those who don’t might recognize “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” from the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. It also features world-class blues pianist Katie Webster, father-and-son blues guitar duo Lonnie and Donnie Brooks, Queen of Blues KoKo Taylor, and Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials.
We’re seldom cheated out of a note, hearing entire songs from intro to applause. They’re all fun to watch and listen to, but the group jam of Sweet Home Chicago is the undisputed highlight. Featuring all the talent on the roster, it’s high energy, infectious, and a true celebration of the blues and Alligator Records.
While the concert itself is phenomenally well edited and the film as a whole has a great flow, the editing of the documentary itself feels amateurish from an aesthetics standpoint. There are times it looks like it was edited on iMovie, or at least using default setting and text on cheap-even-by-its-era editing software. It doesn’t diminish the content of the film, per se, but it’s a bit distracting at times.
While Pride and Joy is distributed on Blu-Ray, don’t expect it to look pristine, enhanced, or in 16×9. It was either shot on rough-quality film or the film it was restored from hasn’t aged too well, so there’s still the occasional scratch and nothing looks particularly stellar. I confess to not having seen the original print, so take my point with however many grains of salt you deem fit — I suspect, if nothing else, they’ve brightened it up a bit. The fact that this is on Blu-Ray feels unnecessary, save for perhaps the necessity of covering that format.
There’s not much in the way of extra features, other than a short featurette on the making of Pride and Joy and audio from 10 additional songs from the 20th anniversary tour, but those two are fine and plenty. The music is as solid as you’ll find in the concert, and the mere fact that this is available on DVD/Blu-Ray is enough.
Pride and Joy is a must-watch for blues fans. Come for the documentary, watch time and time again for the concert.
Get your copy of Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records on Amazon.