A Review of Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty

During the Q&A session of Reel Indie Film Fest’s opening night screening of Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty, Winter’s guitarist and manager, Paul Nelson, uttered these blasphemous words:

“Johnny made Hendrix look like he was on training wheels.”

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Jimi on bass, backing up Johnny.

Indeed, Johnny “Cool Daddy” Winter is a blues legend – among blues musicians, that is. For the rest of us the name doesn’t ring many bells. Somehow, this legally blind, albino virtuoso from Texas, who spent his career playing with the best of the best – Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Hendrix, to name a few – remains decidedly under-appreciated, at least in comparison to his friends and counterparts who became gods of pop culture.

Down and Dirty aims to change that. The documentary follows Johnny during the midst of his “comeback” tour. But rather than a comeback from a stale career, this is a comeback of the man’s body, soul, and musicianship.

Unbeknownst to everyone involved in the film, however, this would be Johnny’s last tour. He died shortly after the film was finished. Down and Dirty, then, serves as a final glimpse into the life and mind of a musician who lived a hardcore rock and roll lifestyle since age 15, relentlessly pursuing his passion for the true blues. The title is fitting, and Johnny says so himself.

Although you’ll find the usual tantalizing rock documentary themes – the music, the road, drugs, redemption – this film is really about Johnny’s obsessive drive to succeed: what pushed him to master guitar, to become a star, to kick drugs, to keep on keepin’ on. Underneath that, it’s about the team effort led by Paul Nelson that helped return their strung-out, near-dead friend and frontman to his former glory. At age 70 in the film, Johnny may have to sit down on stage, but damn if he can’t still wield an axe.

Go see this entertaining and heartwarming portrait of a musician who has earned more than a few pages in the history of popular music. If you have any appreciation for blues or rock, you owe it to yourself. After all, this is the man who could reportedly walk into a room and make Jimi Hendrix put down his guitar and say, “Uh oh, here comes Johnny. Gimme a bass.”

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