June 28, 2022
by Carla Hay
“Music Pictures: New Orleans”
Directed by Ben Chace
Culture Representation: The documentary “Music Pictures: New Orleans” (which was filmed in 2020 and 2021) features a racially diverse (African Americans and white people) group of music artists and people in the New Orleans music scene talking about Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr., who all participated in the documentary.
Culture Clash: Thomas, Jones, King and Marsalis were all in their 70s and 80s when this documentary was filmed, and they talk about the challenges they’ve faced in their personal and professional lives.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to fans of these artists, “Music Pictures: New Orleans” will appeal mostly to people who are fans of New Orleans music and documentaries that celebrate music artists who were influential to countless numbers of people.
“Music Pictures: New Orleans” is not a definitive or impactful documentary about the New Orleans music scene. However, it’s a pleasantly entertaining, early 2020s snapshot of four influential artists in blues and jazz. These four artists are Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr., who all participated in the documentary, which was filmed from January 2020 to April 2021. Marsalis died from COVID-19-related pneumonia on April 1, 2020. He was 85.
Directed by Ben Chace, “Music Picture: New Orleans” (which clocks in at a brisk 72 minutes for its total running time) has a straightforward format of giving each artist profile a separate chapter. “Part 1: The Soul Queen” spotlights blues singer Thomas. “Part 2: The Heartbeat of the Band” focuses on jazz musician Jones, the leader and snare drummer of the Treme Brass Band. “Part 3: Last King of the Blues” centers on blues singer/guitarist King. “Part 4: Modern Men” showcases jazz icon Marsalis. All of these artists have been vital to the New Orleans music scene and influential in their own ways to many people around the world.
“Music Pictures: New Orleans” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) has some archival photos and archival footage of these artists, but the vast majority of the screen time consists of just documenting these four artists’ lives as music performers during the time that the documentary was filmed. Expect to see footage of them in recording studios or on stage, but don’t expect a lot of insight into their personal lives that hasn’t already been covered elsewhere. The movie is an easy watch, but it’s not particularly revealing.
Thomas (born in 1941) is shown recording songs for an album that has not yet been released, as of this writing. This album will be her first album of new recordings since 2008’s “Simply Grand.” Her “Full Time Woman – The Lost Cotillion Album” (released in 2014) was an album that she originally recorded in the early 1970s.
One of the songs she sings in the recording studio is “Don’t Go to Strangers,” which was the title track to Etta James’ 1960 album. Conga player Alfred “Uganda” Roberts and pianist Kyle Roussel are two of the musicians in the recording studio with her. Thomas is confident and relaxed in the studio, but she does say out loud that she’s very aware that this will be the first album she’s making in several years.
Thomas talks a little but about how she got started in the music business. When she was a teenage waitress, she got fired for singing on the job. Her boss was also a racist because he told her that he didn’t like her singing music from black people, and he used the “n” word racial slur. Thomas went from being fired from that waitress job to becoming a professional singer. Her first single, “Don’t Mess With My Man,” released in 1959, was a hit on the R&B charts.
She opens up about a few low points in her career, including being ripped off by a manager, whom she parted ways with in the 1970s. Her next manager was Emile Jackson, who also became her third husband. The couple got married in 1976. She jokes about her partnership with Jackson: “I found it cheaper to keep him. And I don’t want to train another one.”
Jackson is briefly interviewed in the documentary. He remembers the first time he met Thomas: “I didn’t know who she was.” At the time, Thomas had split from her unscrupulous manager and wasn’t actively looking for another manager. However, she says in the documentary that she told Jackson: “You can be my manager. And what you don’t know, we can learn together. And that’s the way it’s been ever since.”
The documentary’s segment on Jones (who was born in 1943) is perhaps the least interesting of the four, mainly because he doesn’t give much insight into himself and his career. Jones’ part of the documentary mainly shows him performing with his band. While playing music in a small nightclub, Jones says generic things, such as: “When I see people dancing, and I see a smile on their face, that makes my work much easier.”
King (born in 1940) has the liveliest personality out of the four artists. He’s quite the raconteur, as he tells stories about his life. He talks about how he was shot by his wife Amy (before they were married) with a .357 Magnum that he kept hidden in his garden. Despite this shooting incident, he married her anyway.
King’s segment also shows him performing at a nightclub and in the recording studio. Songs he performs include “Bad News,” “Mean Little Woman” and “Pocketful of Money.” Some of King’s associates are also interviewed, such as drummer/manager “Wacko” Wade Wright and harmonica player Bobby Lewis. Not surprisingly, they praise King for his talented musicianship and his resilience during tough times.
Although he is originally from Mississippi, King considers New Orleans to be his true home. As far as King is concerned, he thinks the most authentic blues artists are those who’ve experienced real struggles. King comments in the documentary: “The young don’t know what the blues is, because they didn’t live the blues, and they didn’t go through hard tribulations and hard times.”
This comment is a little dismissive of the fact that people of any age can go through hardships. Maybe he meant that young people in America didn’t have to grow up in an era when racial segregation was legal and enforced. It’s why this documentary probably needed an interviewer asking more probing questions. Some of of King’s commentary tends to ramble, so the documentary needed better editing for this segment.
Knowing that he has passed away, viewers will probably be the most moved by the documentary’s segment on Ellis Marsalis Jr., who is shown recording music with his son Jason Marsalis. (Ellis is on piano, while Jason is on xylophone.) Some of these recording sessions ended up on Ellis’ final studio album, “Discipline Meets the Family,” which was released in 2021. Jason’s daughter Marley (who was 15 at the time), who played piano on the album, is also in the documentary during these studio sessions. She is not interviewed and doesn’t say much.
The documentary also has footage of Ellis as a guest performer during a show that Jason headlined at the Snug Harbor nightclub in New Orleans. In a voiceover, Jason says of the footage in the documentary, “What I didn’t know at the time was that was going to be his last session and one of the last times we would play together.” Jason adds that he’s grateful these moments were recorded and that he collaborated with his father for Ellis’ last album.
The Marsalis family is the most famous jazz family from New Orleans. Ellis’ musician children (who are all sons) are Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, Jason, Ellis III and Mboya Kenyatta. In the documentary, Ellis Jr. makes this admission, which might surprise some people: “I never wanted a family band.” It’s one of the reasons why Ellis Jr. would perform with most of his sons on special occasions, such as Jazz Fest, but not do albums and tours with the entire family.
If Ellis Jr. did collaborate with any of his sons in the recording studio, it was with one or a few of the sons at a time. Ellis Jr. comments on Wynton, the most famous Marsalis family member: “For me, to be in Wynton’s band is to date it, because what I learned is much earlier, and Wynton is still in a state of evolution.” Ellis Jr. offers this observation of Jason: “From [his] very, very young years, there were very few things that he heard that he didn’t have an appreciation for.”
Watching three generations of the Marsalis family in the recording studio is an undoubtable highlight of “Music Pictures: New Orleans.” And the movie certainly does touch on some of the struggles that these musicians faced in their lives. What’s missing from this very male-dominated documentary is any acknowledgement or exploration of how sexism affected who got the most and the best opportunities in the music industry when these artists were in their heyday. The fact that Thomas is the only woman interviewed in the documentary is a clear example of how women are often overlooked and sidelined as important parts of the music industry.
As for how the New Orleans music scene has changed over the years, the documentary includes some commentary about it, but none of it is particuarly new or revealing. The artists who comment on changes in New Orleans mainly mention Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the New Orleans area in 2005. Thomas says Hurricane Katrina “changed everybody.”
Jones also comments on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans real estate market: “After Katrina, people with money were buying property” and charging rent that was “sky-high.” And so, many of the people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina who “want to come back can’t afford it, probably.”
According to Jones, the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans is still recovering from an exodus of artistic people who relocated because of Hurricane Katrina. He comments, “The music is back, but delivered in a different way, in a different neighborhood.”
“Music Pictures: New Orleans” keeps the focus solidly on these artists, but the documentary could have used some perspectives from other people besides a few of the artists’ family members or employee associates. “Music Pictures: New Orleans” will delight fans of these artists, but casual music fans might not think this movie is essential viewing. As far as documentaries about New Orleans music artists go, “Music Picture: New Orleans” is like a select buffet that’s satisfactory, but it’s not a full-course feast that people will be raving about for days.