Subtitled New Orleans: The City of Music, Up From the Streets is a documentary from Michael Murphy (Make It Funky!) that attempts nothing short of giving a primer on the entire history of the music that influenced and rose out of New Orleans, from the raw material found in the cultures of African and Latin American slaves, Native Americans, and European horns to the unique forms of jazz that created the building blocks of rock ’n’ roll.
Certainly the history of the musical melting pot that is New Orleans could fill a 15-part Ken Burns docu-series, but this film manages to pack a great deal into its 104 minutes thanks to four-time Grammy-winning host and executive producer Terence Blanchard, who also serves as the movie’s musical director. Blanchard’s music history knowledge is clearly vast, but he’s also able to condense a great deal of information into a tightly knit highlights package, weaving his way through profiles of the Marsalis family (many of whom are interviewed, including patriarch and piano great Ellis Marsalis, who passed died last month), the Neville family, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Mannie Fresh, Harry Connick Jr., James Book, Dr. John, all the way up to bounce music royalty Big Freedia.
With vast amounts of archival performance footage and just as many personal remembrances from musicians discussing their interactions with and inspiration from the generations before them, Up from the Streets is perhaps more emotionally driven than many music documentaries. This is never more obvious than the many conversations about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans scene. One musician says you’ve never truly experienced silence until you’ve walked through the city and not heard any music playing. But music played a key role in the rebuilding process, and the significance of holding Jazz Fest 2006 (this year’s iteration was recently cancelled) only eight months after Katrina was massive, especially when artists like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen showed up to perform and support the region.
Director Murphy and Blanchard are wise enough to just let the music speak for itself; they are also brave enough to let their film feel a bit like a class in music theory. They make the connections between cultures, generations and styles, and help us to realize what a melting pot the New Orleans music scene truly was and is. There are no original ideas in music, but Up from the Streets illustrates that blending previously existing styles in new and exciting ways might be the best idea in the world.
The film is available through the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa” program. For every ticket sold, $2 will be donated to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation COVID-19 relief fund. There will also be a special live Q&A via ZOOM with Terence Blanchard and director Michael Murphy on Saturday, May 16, at 6pm CST.
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