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June 2, 2020

Film review: ‘Up from the Streets’ tells the backstory of New Orleans music magic

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It’s hard to describe “Up from the Streets,” a comprehensive music documentary about New Orleans and music. Directed by Michael Murphy, it has incredible interviews with musicians who are still with us. But the film also takes us back to a time when the beats of Africa were animating the songs of the South.

If for no other reason, this documentary deserves attention for the breadth of its interviews, from Sting, to Keith Richards, to the Neville Brothers to the Marsalis family. But the archival footage is also stunning.

The documentary has lots of talking heads, describing the history of New Orleans music from the early days of slavery to the current days of rap and funk. There’s a clear line drawn, with the beats and rhythms of the Deep South and the Caribbean giving rise to all sorts of musical genres, including blues, gospel, jazz and rock ’n’ roll.

The greatest achievement of the film is to tie all these strands together, showing the origins of songs, the call-and-response patterns and the brilliant improvisational techniques that led to the finest performances of such greats as Louis Armstrong, Jelly-Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Baby Briscoe and Mahalia Jackson.

Terence Blanchard, the great trumpeter and promoter of the Preservation Hall Band, has a key role in the story, serving as its host. But if you think this is a joyful trip through the past, you’d better hitch your pants. This is a story about social consciousness — about how black folks used music to express their frustrations and their hopes. It’s also about how they undermined the system, whenever they got a chance.

Yeah, “Up from the Streets” is full of politics — and the connection between music and the civil rights movement. But it’s so much more than that.

Some will wish that the talking heads would talk less and that the singers and musicians had more time. And heaven knows, there are some some great performances here like Aaron Neville singing “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Then there’s a jazzy rendition of “Blackbird,” written by Paul McCartney, a subversive salute to the civil rights movement.

The movie has lots of information about Second Lines, about New Orleans parades, and about the community that music engenders. A lot of the film deals with folks who are working to preserve the past by working at Preservation Hall.

But about the middle of the way through the film we get this: A musician marvels at how all kinds of people come together during musical performances in New Orleans. The black performers, the multicultural crowds, the overall atmosphere appears to be a unifying theme in a divisive time. But as the musician notes, when the music stops, folks go back to their own corners, and all of a sudden, the unity is over. There’s a duality in society that music has still not transcended, at least not after the music stops. And that’s such a sad moment.

Some of the discussion focuses on how the blues is a basic foundation of southern music. And there’s talk about how jazz and later iterations say, yeah, we have the blues, but we can also have fun. But “Up from the Streets” reminds us that we have a long way to go, even while we enjoy the glorious musical heritage of New Orleans.

The movie is streaming on the Austin Film Society website, austinfilm.org. A portion of the proceeds for the streaming fee go to the local film society, but some also go to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s relief fund for out-of-work musicians in New Orleans during the pandemic.

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

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