Film review: Two new docs take on the legacy or New Orleans music

‘Take Me to the River’ and “Jazz Fest’ feature some of our finest


Two new New Orleans music documentaries are opening in Austin in the next two weeks — “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” and “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story.” Both cover similar territory, but each has its own framing and focus.

“Take Me to the River: New Orleans” is scheduled to open at the Alamo Drafthouse at Mueller on May 20. Directed by Martin Shore, it deals with a series of jam sessions in the Crescent City, where stalwarts on the music scene perform with up-and-comers.

It’s sort of a baton-passing, with he queen of NOLA soul, Irma Thomas, working with R&B singer Ledisi. Thomas, as many folks know, shot up on the charts in the late 1950s with “You Can Have My Husband But Please Don’t Mess With My Man.”

Thomas joins Ledisi for a powerful rendition of “I Wish Someone Would Care,” with Shore producing the single. Thomas also joins Cyril Neville, George Porter Jr., Ian Neville and Ivan Neville for “Carnival Time.”

Shore says his first music documentary, 2014’s “Take Me to the River: Memphis,” focuses on the Tennessee River town’s musical influences. He says the New Orleans update shows how world music was created.

Some of the scenes focus on the importance of the beat — and the drummers behind the beat. Shannon Powell, who is considered the local King of Treme, shows his skills that are derived from Africa and says wryly “I beat to eat.” He pairs up with a younger drummer, Terrence Higgins, and then discusses Congo Square, the site of African-American celebrations on the weekends.

There’s the obligatory shoutout to Preservation Hall, founded in 1963, and a discussion of the Katrina disaster and how it nearly killed New Orleans’ music scene. But the joy of the documentary lies in the performances, as when Donald Harrison on saxophone performs with his inventive nephew, Christian Scott, on trumpet.

As the movie shows, New Orleans music is a family affair, with the Nevilles, the Batistes, the Touissants and many others. Jon Batiste, whose “We Are” won album of the year at the Grammys, however, does not perform, probably because he has a regular gig on “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert.

But be on the lookout for the arrival of Snoop Dogg, who pitches in for a rendition of “Yes We Can Can.”

“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” has already played in Austin at the annual South by Southwest Film Festival. But it’s opening for a regular theatrical run on June 3 at the AMC Barton Creek and the Regal Arbor at Great Hills.

As its name says, it focuses on the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — and how it has brought together all sorts of artists from around the world, including R&B singers, rock ’n’ rollers, gospel groups, African groups and many more.

Each year, the festival features about 7,000 musicians on 14 stages over eight days.

The movie features interviews with George Wein, the Newport Jazz Festival founder who helped get the ball rolling in New Orleans, once the Jim Crow laws started to go by the wayside in the early 1970s.

Wein recruited an eager young man, Quint Davis, to be the producer for the festival, and the documentary is framed through his experiences.

The event draws out some of the classic performers in pop music, from Earth, Wind & Fire to Jimmy Buffett, who’s one of the film’s producers.

Irma Thomas shows up again, but a sizable part of the documentary deals with the Marsalis family, the late Ellis and his four musical sons, Branford, Jason, Wynton and Delfeayo. They’re considered the first family of jazz, so it’s only right that they get a lot of attention.

Also featured are Samantha Fish and Miami’s Pitbull, who belts out “Fireball” as his dancers shake their booties.

Mardi Gras Indians get their due, as does the Rev. Al Green, who brings a gospel touch to the proceedings. But the strangest sight, by far, is Katy Perry joining a white-robe gospel choir to perform “Oh Happy Day.” Perry wears a skimpy silver spacesuit and bounces around in front of the choir.

It’ll be hard not to cry toward the end, when Bruce Springsteen shows up at the festival right after Katrina and sings “My City of Ruin.” It’s probably the most touching moment in the documentary, and you can thank the directors for not allowing folks to talk over the performance — a frequent problem in these kinds of movies.

The directors, by the way, are Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern. Marshall is married to Kathleen Kennedy, the longtime producer for Steven Spielberg.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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