Bonnie Blue: James Cotton's Life in the Blues

Born in 1935 on Bonnie Blue plantation in Tunica, Mississippi, apprenticing with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Howlin’ Wolf, and schooled by Muddy Waters, James ‘Super Harp’ Cotton became a mentor to harp players around the globe as he brought the delta blues into mainstream rock ‘n roll. Orphaned at nine, Cotton’s journey tracks America’s history and his story is one of empowerment during a time when the weight of racial inequity made the journey seem impossible. Bonnie Blue – James Cotton’s Life in the Blues is a unique portrait of an era and its impact today. Cotton’s music made history; his musical voice was unique, and the blues were never the same.

  • Bestor Cram
    Director
    The Last American Colony: One Man's Revolution; Gary K. - One Step at a Time, Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Laden; The Birth of a Movement; JFK: The Last Speech; Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison; Unfinished Symphony
  • Bestor Cram
    Writer
  • Mike Majoros
    Writer
  • Judith Laster
    Producer
    Bruce and Alvin; Wildfire - Episode 1, Our Future, Our Fight; Sunny Side Up; Automatic Drip
  • James Montgomery
    Producer
    America You Kill Me
  • Sam Pollard
    Producer
    Black Russians: The Red Experience; Counting the Ballots; Rediscovering Kate Carew; Lift; etc.
  • Mike Majoros
    Editor
    Gary K., One Step at a Time; The Last American Colony; etc.
  • Project Type:
    Documentary
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 26 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    February 18, 2022
  • Production Budget:
    650,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
    English
  • Film Color:
    Black & White and Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
    No
  • Student Project:
    No
  • FInalist Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Award
  • Independent Film Festival of Boston
    Boston
    United States
    May 2, 2022
    World Premiere
    Official Selection
  • Roxbury International Film Festival
    Boston, Massachusetts
    June 29, 2022
  • Martha's Vineyard FilMusic Festival
    Vineyard Haven, MA
    United States
    June 24, 2022
  • Woods Hole Film Festival
    Woods Hole, MA
    United States
    July 28, 2022
    Special Event Screening
  • Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival
    Providence
    United States
    August 14, 2022
    Rhode Island
    Best Music Documentary, Official Selection
  • International Black Film Festival
    Nashville, Tennessee
    United States
  • Woodstock Film Festival
    Woodstock
    United States
    September 29, 2022
    New York
    Official Selection
  • Mill Valley Film Festival
    Mill Valley, California
    United States
  • Doc'n Roll Film Festival UK
    London
    United Kingdom
    November 13, 2022
    European Premiere
    Official Selection
  • Clarksdale Film and Music Festival
    Clarksdale, MS
    United States
    January 28, 2023
    Mississippi
  • Milwaukee Film Festival
    Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    United States
    April 25, 2023
  • EPOS Art Film Festival
    Tel Aviv
    Israel
    March 11, 2023
  • Harlem International Film Festival
    New York
    United States
    May 26, 2023
Director Biography - Bestor Cram

Bestor Cram is an established Producer/Director/Cinematographer of non-fiction films for television and museums. Following a staff position at the MIT Film Section, he founded Northern Light Productions in 1983 which has grown to become a production company involved in all forms of new media and traditional motion picture creation and exhibition. The work is on display at museums and visitor centers including the September 11th Memorial and Museum, various museums of the Smithsonian Institution, the Illinois Holocaust Museum, James Madison’s Montpelier and National Parks throughout the nation.

Bestor’s recent feature documentary work includes The Last American Colony: One man’s Revolution, Gary K.- One Step at a Time, Revealed: The Hunt for bin Laden, The Birth of a Movement, JFK: The Last Speech and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. His work has been broadcast internationally and chosen for exhibition at film festivals worldwide. Unfinished Symphony was selected for competition at Sundance. He is a producer on and the director/cinematographer of Bonnie Blue-James Cotton’s Life in the Blues.

Bestor Cram serves as the president of the International Quorum of Motion Picture Producers, and is a board member of the Massachusetts Producers Coalition MPC and FILMA. He taught at the Maine Media Workshops for more than 30 years and regularly lectures at New England colleges and universities. He is a graduate of Denison University, Granville, Ohio and completed additional studies at the West Surrey College of Art and Design in Guildford, England. He is married and lives with his family in Newton, MA.

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Director Statement

We began making this film while Cotton was still alive and expected to shoot more with him revealing his intimate understanding of life as a Black artist who traveled the road overcoming barriers that he confronted. Still performing, he passed at the age of 81 while we were still in production. We have original never- before-released footage we shot with him that offers a sense of his undeniable humility and unmatched musical genius. It is combined with archival performances and a treasure trove of richly conceived black and white never before seen stills that provide the cinematic foundation for this journey.

As the director, I set out to provide an insight to the life of a music legend--someone who blues harp players today continue
to emulate with respect for his innovation, power and capacity to turn the harmonica into a lead instrument that matched the music and intensity of a lead guitar.

The core of the film is music as a voice. Cotton’s voice, always a bit challenging, became very difficult to hear and understand after cancer destroyed his vocal chords. So, throughout the film we use various elements to enhance the viewers appreciation of Cotton’s voice—its emotional power, breadth of expression and nuanced tone that evolved over decades as he continued to reinvent his career while paying homage to his roots.

The approach for this documentary was forged by providing a chronological profile of Cotton’s life, public and private. As he was evolving and shaping his sound, so too was the music around him. Many voices of influential musicians attest not only to Cotton’s influence, but also provide through various performances, insight into the music that is performed, enabling an appreciation for the distinctiveness of the blues and the manner in which the harp is played to achieve its distinctive voice

Everyone agrees that Cotton was generous with other musicians. For Cotton, color did not matter, only the ability to play and to love what you were doing. In this era of racial reckoning, we have focused on authentically presenting Cotton’s life in the blues as a man who was always engaged in negotiating the struggles of being a black man in a white man’s industry. But as a musician he found his voice and used it to express his soul and unite audiences in the shared feelings the blues evokes for all.