Nightsong (1964) and The Facts of Life (1982)
Chicago Film Archives and the Black Cinema House present two films about two Chicago artists from decades past. Although doo-wop and folk singer Willie Wright has all but disappeared into the vaults of Chicago’s recording artist history, Willie Dixon is a musical icon who occupies his own rarified space in the world of the Chicago blues. Both films dwell in the imagination and memories of its subjects.
Following the screening, we invite you to stick around for a listening party of recently discovered tapes of a 1972 performance by Willie Dixon’s All Stars at Malcolm X College. As far as we can tell, these tapes haven’t been heard in 40 years.
Nightsong (1964, Don Klugman, 16mm, 19 min.) is an experimental film that uses Chicago’s near north nightclub scene as its backdrop. The story centers on the struggles and romantic desires of the film’s protagonist, long-forgotten African-American folk sensation, Willie Wright. Stylistically impressionistic, this film captures and rides the racial and sexual tensions that were ever-present in Chicago during the mid 1960s. It also provides a rare and unique portrait of the vintage Rush Street neighborhood with both exterior and interior footage of legendary hot spots such as the Kismet Club, Mr. Kelly’s, the Fickle Pickle, and the Tender Trap. But Willie Wright is the glowing focal point of Nightsong. He gives a charming and heartfelt performance both on stage and as the film’s protagonist—a black man struggling for respect and survival in a primarily white musical genre and neighborhood.
Apart from his depiction as a folksinger in the film, Wright’s actual musical roots were in the Chicago doo-wop scene, playing in a group that formed in Cabrini Green called the Medallionaires during the late 1950s. After having lackluster success in three successive doo-wop groups, Wright decided that there had to be a better way. Folk music had become all the rage in the mid-1960s, and black performers including Harry Belafonte, Josh White, Odetta, and John Lee Hooker found remarkable coffeehouse success. According to the Chicago Defender, patron Chloe Hoffman suggested that he try folk music. Hoffman provided him with a guitar and some albums of folk songs, and Willie returned three months later a self-made folk singer, crossing over to the Near North Side’s burgeoning folk music community.
From the late 1960s through the 1970s, Wright released two self-titled folk albums on local labels and then slowly disappeared into history. Nightsong contains the only known extant performance footage of Wright.
Director Don Klugman won the “Coupe Kodak-Pathe” prize for Nightsong at Cannes in 1965. The film was named one of the Ten Best Winners in the Amateur Cinema League’s 1964 International Film and Video Festival for its expressive use of color. The Chicago Film Archives’ 16mm archival preservation print of Nightsong (funded by the National Film Preservation Foundation) will be screened on March 2.
The Facts of Life (1982, Gilbert Moses, 16mm, 29 min.) is a journey and reflection on the life of Willie Dixon and the meaning of the blues. His story is laid out and explained in Dixon’s own poetic voice. Early in the film he states, “The majority of people don’t understand the blues… they don’t know that the blues are the facts of life.” Scenes of Chicago’s south side streets and alleys are combined with recording sessions in his studio as well as gigs at the legendary blues club Theresa’s on South Indiana Avenue. Juxtaposed with these doc-style scenarios are reenactments of Dixon’s childhood memories in Mississippi. These visual flights of fantasy give an imaginary quality to the film and place Dixon’s life in a larger narrative of the African-American experience.
Whereas Nightsong portrays the internal trip (and the terror?) of a black musician who has only tentative control in the white world he occupies, The Facts of Life illustrates a more external rendition of Willie Dixon’s life, a musician who seems very much in control of the story he tells, the environment he lives in and the music he writes.
The Facts of Life is from CFA’s Chicago Public Library Collection and was produced as part of Nguzo Saba Films’ “Were You There?” series. The CFA 16mm print will be screened on March 2.
Black Cinema House
6901 S. Dorchester Ave.