Les Blank, Blues Documentarian, Dead at 77

Les Blank
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Filmmaker Les Blank, whose documentaries about blues and jazz musicians and music of the South were widely acclaimed, died April 7 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 77; the cause of death was bladder cancer.

Beginning in 1965 with a short film on Dizzy Gillespie, Blank set a new standard for creating intimate and revealing portraits of musicians and music-based cultures. He made "The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins" in 1968, "Hot Pepper" about zydeco legend Clifton Chenier in 1973 and "Sprout Wings and Fly" about the the Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell in 1983.

"J'ai été au bal" ventured into Cajun country and "Chulas Fronteras" traveled back and forth across the Texas-Mexico border with norteno musicians; he also made a 31-minute film with Huey Lewis and the News on the making of their video for "Stuck With You." "In Heaven There is No Beer," which won a special jury prize at the 1985 Sundance Film festival, he explored the world of polka.

Besides music, Blank also focused on food and drink in films such as “Garlic is as Good as 10 Mothers,” "All in This Tea" and "Yum Yum Yum!," a half-hour film about Cajun and Creole food.

Blank received lifetime achievement awards from the American Film Institute and the International Documentary Association and given the honorary Maverick Award at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2000.

Blank Jr. was born Nov. 27, 1935, in Tampa, Fla., and he attended Tulane University in New Orleans, where he majored in English. After seeing Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," he began to study acting and playwriting before going to film school at the University of Southern California. His on-the-job training was in industrial and educational films and he opened a production company, Flower Films, in 1967.

Blank is survived by his sons Harrod and Beau, a daughter, Ferris Robinson, and three grandchildren.