A Music documentary
Directed by Michael Murphy
Most musical documentaries get the balance off. They tell you why these musicians are so great, how they became who they are, and what they’re doing now (if they’re alive). But they rarely give you a chance to enjoy the music. At best, you’ll get a few bars of a song before the narrator comes in to tell you why this piece you’re not allowed to hear is a masterpiece.
But Up From the Streets/New Orleans: The City of Music gets the balance right. There’s music almost throughout, and all of it is great. True, only a few songs are played from beginning to end, but they’re the right songs. And if filmmaker Michael Murphy couldn’t find the time to play a song completely, he picks the best moment of that song. You can almost dance from beginning to end.
(And no, a music documentary can’t possibly have too much music. If it does, it’s not a documentary. It’s a concert movie.)
Up From the Streets tells two different histories, but they’re histories that are so deeply entwined that you can’t separate them: The history of American popular music and the history of New Orleans.
The film starts with Terence Blanchard, with his horn, talking about his beloved city and the music that comes out of it. He’s the closest that the film has to a narrator, even though he pops up only occasionally. Other musicians and musicologists, including Charmaine Neville, three Marsalises, and Keith Richards, talk about what has happened and what is going on.
The story they tell begins before abolition, when New Orleans slaves were allowed to dance at Congo Square every Sunday. The sounds came from Africa, but it soon became American. The narrative primarily concentrates on the 20th century, when blues turned to jazz, to swing, to rock, to hip hop, and many other forms in between.
And built into this story is the much sadder one about segregation and hate. Brilliant musicians, many of them world famous, could not sleep in all but a few hotels. One club built a small hotel so its traveling musicians had a place to sleep.
And yet everyone interviewed in the documentary loves the city. They believe New Oreans is the greatest music city in the world, where everyone, black, white, or in between has music in their bones.
The musicians on the soundtrack are both historical and current. They include Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Professor Longhair, and Dr. John. In one of the film’s highpoints, Blanchard & E-Collective, with Quiana Lynell, perform an incredible version of Blackbird – a song about American race relations written by a white man from Liverpool (Paul McCartney).
Up From the Streets opens Friday for home viewing. You can buy tickets from the Rafael website. Other theaters may carry it, as well. There will be a special Zoom Q&A with Blanchard and director Michael Murphy 4:00pm Pacific time, on Saturday, May 16.