Review: St. Louis Blues (1958)

Nat “King” Cole stars in the musical biography of musician, band leader, composer and “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy. As far as pop singers in the movies go, Nat isn’t half bad and he sings a number of tunes in the film which is pleasant to listen to if you happen to be doing something like, oh say, filing paperwork while you’re watching.

It’s the supporting cast of characters that makes this film so much fun to watch: Cab Calloway as Blade, the nightclub owner, Eartha Kitt as the chanteuse who makes Handy famous by singing his tunes, Ruby Dee as Handy’s sweet hometown girl, and Pearl Bailey as the aunt who raises him. There are even cameo songs by Mahalia Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald.

The story is a variation on The Jazz Singer–musical son with a talent for the blues is torn between pleasing his devout reverend father and following his talent for creating the Devil’s music. Producers play fast and loose with the facts of Handy’s life and career and the majority of the film is strangely set in a 40s-50sish time period, which doesn’t really jive with a guy whose band played at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and wrote his most famous songs (“St. Louis Blues”, “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues”) in 1912 and 1916. No matter. St. Louis Blues is still worth a listen, if nothing more than to hear (and see) a roster of singers at their peak. [** out of 5]

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