The Search For Robert Johnson

This review is sponsored by


Details At A Glance

Category Documentary Main Menu Introduction 
Main Menu Animation 
Scene Selection Animation 
Notes - Tributes
Year Released 1991
Running Time 72:41 minutes
RSDL/Flipper No/No
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region 1,2,3,4,5,6 Director Chris Hunt
SMV Enterprises 
Sony Music
Starring John Hammond (Narrator)
Case Black Brackley
RPI $34.95 Music Robert Johnson

Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English (Linear PCM 48/16 2.0, 1536 Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1
Macrovision ? Smoking Yes
Subtitles None Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

Plot Synopsis

    You have to be kidding right? You have no idea who Robert Johnson is? Unbelievable! You are obviously a person with no interest in music. Well, prepare to be educated (with due apologies to all those who do revere the name).

    Robert Johnson's recorded legacy comprises about 30 songs recorded in 1936 and 1937, yet this man is the one that Eric Clapton calls "the greatest folk blues guitarist that ever lived". Now when a man of the stature of Eric Clapton, generally regarded as the greatest blues guitarist around, starts throwing quotes around like that, you better take some notice. How about Keith Richards' "you'd think you were getting a handle on playing the blues and then to hear Johnson - whoa!". And you have in all probability heard one of his songs and never known it. His minuscule recorded legacy has been reinterpreted over the years by acts as truly diverse as Muddy Waters, the great John Mayall, Cream, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder, The Spencer Davis Group, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and Bonnie Raitt. Ever watched The Blues Brothers? Then you have heard a Robert Johnson song - Sweet Home Chicago. Whilst he was the King of the Delta Blues, his songs have been reinterpreted as R & B and rock classics, but it is left to the great Blues artists to show how truly great Robert Johnson was, is, and always will be.

    It is ironic that for a man holding such a revered place in the Blues, little was known about him. Even photographs of the man are extremely rare. Little was known about his birth and life and his eventually suspicious death in 1938 at a young age. In his short life he packed a lot of living, and left 30 songs that would change the face of music for decades to come. Whilst this documentary provides extended bites of his music, there is only one way to experience the Blues like you have never experienced them before - it is called The Complete Recordings Of Robert Johnson and it should still be available on CD from Sony Music. It is one of the most essential recordings in my CD collection (a collection I might add that is not exactly small) and were I pushed to name ten desert island CDs, it would almost certainly be amongst them. Now if you want to know about the man, then this documentary is probably going to tell you as much as anyone knows about him.

    To hear the talk of fellow players such as Johnny Shines and Honeyboy Edwards, men who actually played with the legend would be fascinating on its own. But to hear the likes of Winnie Mae Powell, former girlfriend and inspiration for the song Love In Vain (she being the Winnie Mae mentioned in the lyrics) talk about the man, to listen to blues scholars like Mack McCormick and Gayle Dean Wardlow talk about the man and to listen to John Hammond, blues musician, narrate his journey to find the source of the man is almost beyond price. Whilst it might need to be taken with a fair degree of suspicion, given the lack of real tangible information about the man up until now, it is nonetheless fascinating to see them delve into old records to find marriage certificates, to search out locations and attempt to clarify the suspicions about his death (well, murder actually) and place of burial.

    If you are any sort of popular musician at all, then this is essential stuff. Great rock guitarists have been listening to this man for years and this sort of effort to flesh out the legend does in no way detract from his status as a legend. Indeed, this documentary brings together a lot of additional information that to some extent explains the soul of Robert Johnson's music and aids our appreciation of it. Perhaps I am not the right person to review this DVD for the subject is far too close to the core of my appreciation of music to be entirely unbiased. But really and truly, if you have any passing interest in the history of popular music, this is an almost essential purchase about one of the true legends of music. They still play the Delta Blues but they still don't play it the way Robert Johnson could.

Transfer Quality


    Whilst the man may have lived only from 1911 to 1938, thankfully most of the material here is stuff filmed in the early 1990s. Still, thrown in for good measure are some decent enough photographs from the period as well as some film footage to demonstrate the nature of the period.

    The transfer is presented in a Full Frame format and is not 16x9 enhanced. Once again, this is an NTSC formatted DVD and therefore unless you have an NTSC capable display device, you will be able to see nothing really worthwhile. Go buy yourself an NTSC capable display device immediately!

    Despite most of the footage being shot in the early 1990s, I do have to say that it is marginally disappointing. Whilst the interviews are generally quite sharp and convey as much detail as necessary, some of the location shots are really only very average in sharpness and definition. The main problem is that this is really quite a grainy transfer at times, which really does diminish the impact of the film. Overall shadow detail is fairly reasonable and about what you would expect for a documentary of this nature. Clarity is not the best due to the grain problems. There does not appear to be any significant low level noise in the transfer.

    The transfer is also not the most vibrant that you will ever see. Part of the problem is that the interview footage is somewhat undersaturated and lacking in colour depth. When this is combined with the lack of clarity and definition in the transfer, the overall effect is only fair. There is nothing in the way of oversaturation here and colour bleed would be almost impossible given the lack of saturation in the colours.

    There are no significant MPEG artefacts in the transfer. There were some problems with aliasing in the transfer, but otherwise this is fairly free of film-to-video artefacts. There are a few film artefacts floating around in the transfer, and unfortunately they tend to be on the rather noticeable side.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-to-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There is just the one soundtrack on offer on the DVD, being an English Linear PCM 48/16 2.0 soundtrack.

    The narration from John Hammond comes up very well in the soundtrack, but you may have difficulty with some of the interview material. Some of our African-American friends have fairly broad accents and unless you are well attuned to the Mississippi drawl, you may well be sitting scratching your head about what they are saying on occasion. It is for this reason that the lack of subtitles on the DVD is almost inexcusable. Most of the archival audio material, being the songs of Robert Johnson, comes over pretty well indeed. They are quite reminiscent of the sound you get on the CDs from memory. There are no obvious audio sync problems with the transfer.

    Apart from the fact that it is a pretty plain stereo effort, there is nothing wrong with the soundtrack at all. It does a pretty adequate job of presenting the dialogue and the excerpts from Robert Johnson's songs. There are no obvious distortions or other imperfections in the soundtrack other than those inherent in the 1936 and 1937 recordings (and there aren't that many there either).

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    Another sadly understated effort.


    After an introduction to the menu, the menus themselves are quite plain efforts but with little to do that is no great problem. The animation enhancement is adequate.


    Since his recorded legacy is very small, this is obviously quite a shortish effort! Again quite detailed, you get full track listings, catalogue numbers and a shortish audio bite from one track on each individual CD (a total of four bites since there are three CDs, one of which is a double CD). A pity again that we could not have gotten complete sound bites though.

Notes - Tributes

    Basically just a single page listing of some of the acts that have recorded the songs of Robert Johnson. By no means extensive and a pity that we could not have gotten a couple of the actual recordings on the DVD too. They would have made for an interesting comparison.


    As far as we have been able to ascertain, there are no censorship issues with this title.

R4 vs R1

    Since this is an NTSC format, all region code DVD it would seem that there is no difference between the various regions.


    The Search For Robert Johnson is like manna from heaven for a music aficionado like myself, and I guess many will look upon this DVD in the same way. It has to be said however that the video transfer should have been better than we have gotten here. Probably as close to a definitive documentary as we are ever likely to get of this legend on DVD.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ian Morris (have a laugh, check out the bio)
1st April, 2001

Review Equipment
DVD Pioneer DV-515; S-video output
Display Sony Trinitron Wega 80cm. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Audio Decoder Built in
Amplification Yamaha RXV-795. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Speakers Energy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL