British Busker Blues


American Mileage

Cam Cole is a feisty young busker, a street musician from London. He's a one-man band, riffing Blues on a fuzzy guitar while stomping out the beat on a drum he's rigged with pedals. His streetcorner act attracts tourists and passersby who post videos that have gone viral. This has made Cam a social media celebrity. Now he’s taken that and run with it, all the way to America.

American Mileage is a lively road trip in a gypsy RV. Less a documentary than a celebration of self, Cam arrives on American shores and sticks to the South—and the spirit of Highway 49—hitting important Blues landmarks along the way. Remember how, in Lost in America, Albert Brooks wanted to "touch Indians"? Cam Cole wants to touch Bluesmen.

He and his cohort, director Tim Hardiman, blow into a town, looking to jam. Cam just wants to play, mate, and that playfulness and energy endear us to him. He’s fun to watch, especially when bashing away on his guitar and wailing.

Cam shows up at places like the legendary Muscle Shoals Studios (Alabama), Stovall Farm (Louisiana), and The Riverside Hotel (Mississippi). Iconic names are evoked: John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Mavis Staples, and Alan Lomax. He sits in with some of the best and holds his own: at Wild Bill’s in Tennessee, guitarist Chloe Lavender and Cam blow the roof off. He plays in the building where once stood the site where Robert Johnson recorded.

Others have been down American Mileage's road before: U2 made some of the same stops in 1988's Rattle and Hum. In the '70s, a Brit named Mark Bristow toured in a van with Mark's America, a multimedia show shot on Super 8 as he drove.

Tim Hardiman shoots Cam in the frenetic style of an infomercial, with a roaming camera, jump cuts, and snappy graphics. Mr. Hardiman's kitchen-sink style revels in messy moments, like when Cam's Street show is stopped by a freak thunderstorm or when he, Cam, interrupts an interview to take a piss.

For all the miles and all the history, American Mileage all comes back to Cam. Cam jamming. Cam getting a tattoo. Cam sharing wisdom. Cam eating soul food. Cam is front and center the whole time. He gets goofed on. At Greg's Guess House, MS, a guy offers Cam what he tells him is a barbecued raccoon but is actually a cat he hit with his car. "Hmm," Cam says, chewing. "It's very good, mate, very tender."

Cam does some direct narration (i.e., cautioning the viewer that sometimes he'll have a beard and in others be clean-shaven because, you know, shaving), and his soliloquies are shot as if he’s talking to an off-camera interviewer, making us witnesses. It's a popular technique for building credibility. If someone else is listening to him, what he’s saying must be important.

How is Cam received by the Bluesmen? Is he seen as a peer or an upstart? Singer Bobby Rush, who appeared in Martin Scorsese's 2003 doc The Road to Memphis, invites Cam into his home. "You're looking at the Blues," Bobby tells him. "I'm a Black man in Mississippi." Bobby’s cordial and full of stories, some of them horrific, like the car accident he got into while playing with Ike Turner's band. He invites Cam to play with him. He's genuinely pleased to be remembered and respected.

Other guys, not so much. In Bentonia, MS (population 319), Cam inserts himself into a gathering of authentic Bluesmen. These guys are poor and old and still playing. R.L. Boyce slurs and swaggers, then sing like an angel. He tells Cam, "The style I got, you ain’t never gonna get it." Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, owner of the Blue Front Café and a renowned musician, is suspicious and defensive. When Cam extols his own unique style, Jimmy snaps, "Blues is Blues." He accuses Cam of trying to show him up.

These guys have paid their dues. They're still paying their dues. (Has Cam Cole? His backstory is dispensed with quickly; he claims to have not pursued a traditional recording career because the industry is full of "wankers.") Cam purposely placing himself in the midst of the Blues' origins brings up interesting questions.

He asks and answers: "Have white people stolen black people's music? Can a set of chords be owned by a race of people? I don't have an answer to that. I think claiming ownership of anything based on race is starting off on the wrong foot as nothing good can come from that." His predecessors, the Stones and Led Zeppelin, took flack for this, too. They were considered cultural appropriators during the "British Invasion" of rock music. See Keith Richards' spirited dispute with Chuck Berry in 1987's Hail! Hail! Rock n Roll.

But that's the way of the Blues, mate. It’s a continuum. American Mileage is Cam Cole making myth. If he deserves a place at the table, seats will be open soon enough. Maybe he can wedge his way in there after all.

American Mileage. Directed by Tim Hardiman. 2024. Produced by 7th Floor Films, Nomad Films LLC, and Black 22 Productions. On digital platforms. 81 minutes.

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