When Morgan Freeman narrates, we listen. When B.B. King plays, we listen. In other words, you should listen to Life of Riley.
Jon Brewer directs this affectionate documentary on the life and career of Blues legend B.B. King, impeccably narrated by Morgan Freeman. The Bluesman’s career is covered in exhaustive depth through archival footage and a series of candid interviews with associates, including a number of music stars such as Bono and Carlos Santana. B.B. King: The Life of Riley weaves King’s firsthand memories of his formative years with the rising popularity of Blues in the American South and eventually Europe.
The documentary feels most at home interviewing B.B. King, still touring today at the age of 90. He goes back to the Mississippi Delta for answers about his early upbringing and musical beginnings. Pacing does meander when Brewer interviews some of King’s relatives and early associates, as Brewer attempts to paint a convincing picture of King’s background.
Things noticeably improve as it begins to cover B.B. King’s career in music, from the anecdotes about naming his guitar Lucille to recording the pivotal Live At The Regal, the hugely influential album that would become a watershed moment for the Blues. Overcoming the bigotry and racism of the South in that era, the documentary tells how King becomes a musical legend with a worldwide following, including important musicians from Europe like Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr.
Most impressive is the sheer number of important Rockers interviewed in candid sessions admiring the great Bluesman. Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Carlos Santana, Bono, Buddy Guy, Leon Russell, Joe Walsh and John Mayall are but some of the famous musicians to pay tribute to the legend. They also help to focus the narrative on King’s wonderful music and his impact on popular music.
If there is one problem with The Life of Riley, its running time of two hours is too long for a documentary constructed mostly out of archival footage and new interviews. It has a tendency to wander into areas better covered elsewhere, such as brief excursions into B.B. King’s noted womanizing with vague answers given by his second wife.
B.B. King: The Life of Riley is not a hard-hitting documentary intended to be an exposé revealing King’s personal failings. Brewer clearly intended it to be a celebration of the man’s life and music, which it does in admirable style. There is some fat that could have been trimmed from it but fans of the Blues will find it enjoyable.
MVD Visual bestows a satisfactory presentation on the inconsistent visual material found in The Life of Riley in decent 1080p resolution. Some of the archival footage is clearly taken from older standard-definition sources – that could not have been helped. The main feature runs 123 minutes on a BD-25, encoded in AVC at the somewhat low average of 18.93 Mbps. There are no serious compression artifacts to be found except possible aliasing due to upscaling the SD footage.
Featuring a bevy of modern interviews with major stars like Bill Cosby, that footage possesses solid clarity with strong detail and perfect contrast. The archival black-and-white photographs from King’s past also appear nice and crisp. Lesser material includes a number of grainy television appearances likely sourced from faded kinescopes and a few historical re-creations of moments from King’s early career.
There are some inconsistencies in the picture quality of the various interviews; they appear to have been done on different cameras at differing native resolutions. It is kind of a mishmash of sharp Hi-Def video and fuzzy SD. For the most part, one shouldn’t be too bothered by them.
Keeping in mind this is a documentary about music instead of an actual music performance, the lossy 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack at 448 kbps is perfectly adequate for the dialogue-heavy interviews. Morgan Freeman’s narration is firmly anchored in the middle of the front soundstage, along with most of the interviews. Surround activity is reserved for the occasional musical interlude or light accompaniment of King’s music. Everything is presented in crystal clarity with perfect fidelity, the front-heavy mix is well balanced. As long as one isn’t expecting a complete 5.1 mix featuring King’s music in surround, this is a nice track for a documentary.
No subtitles have been provided on this Blu-ray.
This is not the most loaded Blu-ray but does provide extended interviews and an actual live performance by B.B. King. Most smaller distributors shy away from slipcovers but this set does include one.
Interviews (All in HD) – A series of 13 interviews cut from the main documentary, broken up by person. None of them run more than a couple of minutes but they add a little more detail and insight about B.B. King’s influence across the musical spectrum.
Live At The Royal Albert Hall (08:35 in HD) – A recent performance by King as he sings See That My Grave is Kept Clean, which is then followed up by his big hit The Thrill Is Gone. The most notable thing about this performance is that Slash helps out on guitar alongside Derek Trucks and Ronnie Wood.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.