Offering a simplistic overview of major events in the life of legendary blues/folk singer Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly’ or “Leadbelly” because of his muscular build, the slick biopic Leadbelly dramatizes the cause-and-effect relationship between Ledbetter’s difficult life and the soulful quality that infused his performances. Born in 1888 Louisiana, Ledbetter grew up in the racially divided South, eventually spending many years on chain gangs and in state prisons because his temper caused trouble and his race ensured that mercy from government officials was in short supply.
Completely eschewing Ledbetter’s post-prison life, during which he had a complicated relationship with success, the movie kicks off with a long sequence illustrating why Ledbetter left home. After achieving minor local fame as a musician, Ledbetter (Roger E. Mosley) gets into a brawl with a neighbor who lodges a police complaint, so Ledbetter’s long-suffering father, Wes (Paul Benjamin), tells his son to flee in order to avoid imprisonment. Absconding to a red-light district, Ledbetter becomes a kept man for a madam named Miss Eula (Madge Sinclair), who gives him his nickname while also teaching him musical lessons about the blues. Next, Ledbetter hits the road with fellow musician Blind Lemon Jefferson (Art Evans), but another fight lands Ledbetter in prison. He escapes and lives briefly under an alias, but then he’s recaptured and sent to prison at Angola, where he serves a long term for a murder charge stemming from the death of a man whom Ledbetter claims he killed in self-defense. The movie then fudges history by combining major events that actually occurred during two separate stints at two separate jails—Ledbetter charms a governor into issuing a pardon, and Ledbetter’s music is discovered by iconic folk-song archivist John Lomax (James Brodhead).
As directed by photographer-turned-filmmaker Gordon Parks, Leadbelly is a notch more visually sophisticated than the average made-for-TV biopic of the same vintage, but in every other regard it’s quite ordinary. The script by Ernest Kinoy lacks depth, and only a handful of scenes involving supporting characters display real emotional power. In particular, a vignette of aging Wes visiting Angola and trying to buy Ledbetter’s freedom is a heartbreaker that says volumes about the black experience in the Jim Crow South.
Having the vigorous Mosley play the title character at various ages is a problem, since slapping some gray into Mosley’s hair can’t mask Mosley’s youth, and the movie pushes Mosley’s talents way past their limits. He’s an appealing an expressive actor, and he does a fantastic job belting out Leadbetter’s tunes, but his range is far too limited for a role of this scope. In his defense, history seems to indicate that the real Ledbetter was often belligerent and self-destructive, so the choice to play the character as an underdog who overreacts to situations that challenge his manly identity is somewhat understandable. For all of its merits, however, Leadbelly leaves too much of the real Leadbetter story untold.