Various Artists | Up From the Streets:New Orleans :The City of Music | (Eagle Rock Productions)
5 out of 5 stars
There are plenty of American cities with rich and storied musical histories. Memphis, Chicago, New York, Nashville, Seattle and Kansas City among others have all made major contributions to the music history of the US. But only one can lay claim to being the birthplace of jazz and blues.
Because of its profound, often tangled and diverse roots, there have been plenty of quality documentaries on the music of New Orleans. This is arguably the best.
From the beginnings of jazz through, blues, Mardi Gras Indians, gospel, rock and roll, funk and finally hip-hop, the story of New Orleans’ music is complex and multi-layered. That presents a problem trying to encapsulate a complete portrait of the city’s soundtrack and how it arose out of social conditions going back to slavery. This skillfully fashioned hour and forty-five minute exploration explains the key factors, both musical and otherwise, that fused to produce the vivacious New Orleans sound. And it does that with astonishing ease.
Three years in the making, it’s clearly a labor of love for executive producer and host/musician Terence Blanchard, who along with producer/director/filmmaker Michael Murphy has crafted a vibrant, detailed yet heartfelt love letter to The Big Easy. Ancient stills blend with short, punchy interviews (most culled from Murphy’s own three decades of archival footage) featuring articulate historians and musicians that both make New Orleans music (the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, Allan Toussaint, Harry Connick Jr.) and have been influenced by it (Sting, Robert Plant, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards). It’s all expertly edited to present a balanced, educational, mostly joyous and above all musical film, as striking to look at as it is to hear. You don’t need to know or even enjoy the music of the city to appreciate the care and time spent creating this often spellbinding document.
The extensive and often colorful account is presented in mostly chronological order through talking heads on the soundtrack and video. It traces the city’s development from pre-slavery through the civil rights movement and even current events like Hurricane Katrina, showing the way social upheavals were incorporated into New Orleans’ artistic tapestry. You’ll learn how Cuban, African and tropical rhythms worked into the fabric of the area’s music as the movie details the city’s connection to brass bands, big bands, jam bands along with a fair amount of classic rock and roll. It explains the process and environment in which icons such as Louis Armstrong and Little Richard (who recorded his early hits there) created their art which has become an integral aspect of not just the city but the American experience.
The film is a remarkable achievement. While the lack of full songs—most performances are shown in abbreviated clips– might seem to be an impediment, it’s a necessary omission in order to tell the saga of this unique American city in a reasonable amount of time. The doc’s overall upbeat tone also overlooks the high murder rate often associated with New Orleans, once considered one of the more dangerous towns in the county.
Regardless, anyone even tangentially interested in the source of the vital and influential sounds that could have only emerged from “the city that time forgot” will want to carve out a few hours to dive into this extraordinary project.
In short, Up From the Streets is essential viewing.
Note: The film is streaming on demand beginning May 15, until June 15 2020. Tickets for Up From The Streets are available here.