April 13, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jim Farrell
Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world, the documentary film “The Torch” features a group of predominantly white people (with a few African Americans and one Latino), mostly musicians, discussions the life and legacy of blues legend Buddy Guy.
Culture Clash: Guy encountered racism and other obstacles in his road to success, as white artists who copied his style achieved more fame and fortune than he did.
Culture Audience: “The Torch” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Guy, blues music and blues-influenced music.
The documentary “The Torch” breaks no new ground in telling Buddy Guy’s story, but it’s worth seeing for the concert scenes. The film editing is uneven, and the movie needed more diverse interviews. Viewers will probably like the movie more if they know in advance that this movie is more about Guy’s influence on other artists rather than keeping the entire documentary focused on being a biography about Guy. It’s why his protégé Quinn Sullivan shares top billing for this movie and gets almost as much screen time as Guy.
Directed by Jim Farrell, “The Torch” has a title that obviously refers to the phrase “passing the torch.” However, based on what’s in this documentary, the filmmakers want people to believe that Guy’s influence is mostly among white people. That’s because almost everyone interviewed in the documentary is white, except for Guy, Carlos Santana, Ric “Jazz” Hall (a longtime guitarist in Guy’s band) and a Mississippi up-and-coming blues artist named Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.
The other people interviewed in the documentary are Sullivan, Jonny Lang, Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Carmen Vandenberg, Susan Tedeschi, songwriter/producer Tom Hambridge, Damn Right Blues Band keyboardist Marty Sammon and Feduccia Farm owner Craig Feduccia. Quinn Sullivan’s parents (Carol Sullivan and Terry Sullivan) are interviewed, but do not appear on camera. Instead, their comments are heard in voiceovers.
The irony of it all is that pioneer blues artists such as Guy were often ripped off and overshadowed by white people in the music industry. This documentary comes dangerously close to sidelining Guy in a movie that’s supposed to be mainly about him, because a lot of screen time is given to white artists praising Guy and talking about how he influenced them. At one point in “The Torch,” it starts to look like a biography of Quinn Sullivan. Fortunately, the documentary does not veer too far off from being about Guy. However, “The Torch” filmmakers should have made more of an effort to include more diverse perspectives, in terms of race and musical genres, because Guy’s influence isn’t just with white artists who play bluesy rock.
Born on July 30, 1936, in Lettsworth, Louisiana, Guy grew up financially deprived on a plantation. He relocated to Chicago in 1957, and he became known as one of the greats in the influential Chicago blues scene, along with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Otis Rush and Junior Wells. Guy and all of these artists in some way influenced much of what can be heard in R&B and rock and roll in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, which in turn influenced much of today’s music and beyond.
Most blues music aficionados know that Guy wasn’t an overnight sensation. He worked for years as a studio session musician and a semi-pro touring musician before he could quit his day job and become a professional musician. In “The Torch,” Guy says it wasn’t until 1967, when he was 30 or 31, when he was able to start making a living wage from music. He credits Dick Waterman (an influential writer, promoter and photographer in the Chicago blues scene) as being the person who gave Guy his first real big break.
Chess Records founder Marshall Chess was also influential in Guy’s career. In “The Torch,” Guy chokes up a little and gets teary-eyed when he remembers Chess telling him about the British blues-rock supergroup Cream (led by Eric Clapton) in the late 1960s, and Chess giving Guy credit for Cream’s style. Guy remembers Chess telling him: “You’ve been trying to play this [music] all the time, and we were calling it junk. Now, you can come in the studio and do what you want.” According to Guy, he responded to Chess by saying, “I’m a little late.” (In other words: “What took you so long?”)
“The Torch” also includes footage of the recording of Quinn Sullivan’s 2017 “Midnight Highway” album, which was produced by Hambridge. A guitar prodigy, Quinn was discovered by Guy in 2007, when Quinn was 8 years old, and Quinn’s father brought him to a Guy concert at Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford, Massachusetts. As the story goes, Quinn’s father Terry contacted Guy’s guitar tech at the time to ask if it was possible for Quinn to possibly perform with Guy. This guitar tech told Guy about Quinn being an outstanding guitar player who was at the show, so Guy spontaneously invited Quinn on stage to perform as a guest.
Needless to say, Guy was extremely impressed by Quinn’s virtuoso guitar playing at such a young age. (The documentary includes archival footage of this fateful performance.) Quinn has been in Guy’s world ever since. Several people in the documentary compliment Guy for being a kind and generous artist, who always likes to help other artists and who is an exceptional mentor to younger musicians.
And who had a profound influence on Guy when he was a young musician? He mentions blues vanguard John Lee Hooker, whom he describes as his idol. In “The Torch,” Guy shares a story about how when he met Hooker for the first time, he didn’t recognize him because Hooker had a stutter that Guy did not expect. Guy, who also mentions Muddy Waters as a big influence, shares a story about how Waters once gave Guy a sandwich when Waters saw that Guy was literally a starving musician. Guy says that he was so star-struck and grateful, he told Waters, “If you’re hungry, I’m full.”
“The Torch” is at its best with the concert scenes, since much of what is in the documentary includes exclusive footage of Guy on tour. (Most of the footage was filmed in 2016 and 2017. “The Torch” had its world premiere at the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival.) Not much is revealed about Guy’s touring life behind the scenes, so just expect the on-stage footage to be the documentary’s main coverage of his life on tour. These live performances show why Guy is a legend and has a creative spark that a lot of artists who are decades younger don’t really have.
IFC Films released “The Torch” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 18, 2022.