Review: ‘Take Me to the River: New Orleans,’ starring the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas, Big Freedia, Dr. John, the Rebirth Brass Band, Snoop Dogg and Ledisi

May 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” with entertainers that include Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville and Charles Neville (far right); members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; and director Martin Shore (second from left). (Photo courtesy of 360 Distribution)

“Take Me to the River: New Orleans”

Directed by Martin Shore

Culture Representation: The documentary “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” features a racially diverse (African Americans and white people) group of music artists and some producers talking about New Orleans music as they record the movie’s soundtrack songs.

Culture Clash: New Orleans has been a melting pot of different types of music, with certain genres (such as jazz and blues) originating directly from African American experiences of being enslaved and oppressed.

Culture Audience: “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in seeing New Orleans music and culture celebrated by music artists of many different generations.

Irma Thomas in “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” (Photo courtesy of 360 Distribution)

“Take Me to the River: New Orleans” is partly a promotional vehicle showing the recording of the songs on the movie’s soundtrack and partly a history of New Orleans music culture. The documentary has got some editing issues, but the diverse performances in the studio are joyous to watch. Fans of jazz, blues, R&B, rap/hip-hop, Cajun and brass band music will find something to like in “Take Me to the River: New Orleans,” which has representation of all of these music genres.

Directed by Martin Shore and narrated by actor John Goodman, “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” is a sequel to Shore’s 2014 documentary “Take Me to the River,” which focused on the musical history and legacy of Memphis. “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” is not a fully comprehensive history of New Orleans music, because most of the history discussed is about the New Orleans music scene in the 20th century and the early 21st century. And the history is only covered in the context of which songs are on the soundtrack album to “Take Me to the River: New Orleans.” For example, before the recording of a Cajun song is performed, the movie does a brief history of Cajun music in New Orleans.

Filming of the documentary mostly took place at two New Orleans recording studios: Music Shed Studios and The Parlor Recording Studio. On the one hand, it gives viewers a very up-close and intimate view of the artists and their creative process when recording music in a studio. On the other hand, it makes the documentary look somewhat insular by putting so much focus on the recording studio sessions.

New Orleans has a vibrant live music scene that is barely covered in this documentary. There is some brief footage of outdoor performances by local street performers during parades, as well as very old archival clips of concerts by a few well-known New Orleans artists. That’s the extent to which live performances are covered in “Take Me to the River: New Orleans.”

The concept for the documentary and its soundtrack was to bring together artists of various generations to record classic songs that have New Orleans origins. Many of the artists in these recording sessions are New Orleans natives or people whose careers have been significantly influenced by New Orleans culture. And, not surprisingly, the documentary interviews have nothing but praise for New Orleans.

The artists who participated in these recording sessions included the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Ledisi, G-Eazy, Snoop Dogg, William Bell, Galactic, Mannie Fresh, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, George Porter Jr., Christian Scott, Donald Harrison Jr., Big Freedia, Ani DiFranco, Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton, Rebirth Brass Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Soul Rebels, Voice of the Wetlands, 79rs Gang, The Givers, Dumpstaphunk, Cheeky Blakk, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Big Sam, Terence Higgins, Shannon Powell, Whirlin’ Herlin Riley, Alvin Ford Jr., Stanton Moore, 5th Ward Weebie, Walter Wolfman Washington, Eric Heigle, Dee-1, Erica Falls, Ivan Neville, Ian Neville and Davell Crawford. In addition, “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” has interviews with some artists who weren’t part of these recording sessions, including Jon Batiste, Mia X, DJ Soul Sister, Jazz Fest founding producer Quint Davis and Deacon John Moore.

The documentary features the recordings of these songs:

  • “Wish Someone Would Care,” performed by Irma Thomas and Ledisi
  • “Li’l Liza Jane,” performed by drummers Terence Higgins, Shannon Powell, Whirlin’ Herlin Riley, Alvin Ford Jr. and Stanton Moore
  • “Firewater” performed by Donald Harrison Jr. and Christian Scott
  • “Wrong Part of Town,” performed by 79rs Gang
  • “Sand Castle Headhunter,” performed by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band
  • “Blue Moon Special,” performed by Roots of Music, Ani DiFranco and Lost Bayou Ramblers
  • “Stompin’ Ground,” performed by Aaron Neville
  • “Hey Mama (Wild Tchoupitoulas)” performed by the Neville Brothers
  • “504 (Enjoy Yourself),” performed by Soul Rebels and 5th Ward Weebie
  • “Street Parade,” performed by Cyril Neville
  • “New Orleans Girl,” performed by PJ Morton, Rebirth Brass Band and Cheeky Blakk
  • “Act Like You Know,” performed by Dee-1, Mannie Fresh, Erica Falls and Big Freedia
  • “Jack-A-Mo,” performed by Dr. John and Davell Crawford
  • “Yes We Can Can,” performed by William Bell, Snoop Dogg and G-Eazy

“Take Me to the River: New Orleans” includes discussions of Mardis Gras Indian culture in New Orleans; the origins of “bounce” hip-hop in New Orleans; the influential legacy of New Orleans musician/producer Allen Toussaint; and the impact of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans music scene. The words “family” and “community” come up a lot when people talk about the New Orleans music scene.

DJ Soul Sister, Big Freedia and Mia X are among the artists who say that many musicians permanently moved out of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurrican Katrina. Mia X comments on the New Orleans music scene after Hurricane Katrina, “We have this sense of family, unlike no other city, but it’s different.” As difficult as it was for many people to recover from Hurrican Katrina, the recovery process is testament to New Orleans’ resilience. In the documentary, rapper 5th Ward Weebie says, “If you ever seen people go through tough times, rough times, and still come at the end of the day smile about it, that’s what makes New Orleans unique.”

New Orleans native Morton says that he wrote “New Orleans Girl” after Hurricane Katrina changed the city. Morton says about the song “New Orleans is the girl. I’ve been all over the world, and there’s no place like New Orleans.” Snoop Dogg comments, “New Orleans is a safe haven of love.” Aaron Neville states, “New Orleans music is a way of life.”

A recurring theme in the documentary is the importance of passing down musical and cultural traditions or “passing the torch” to younger generations. Many of the New Orleans native musicians have the experience of growing up in musical families and with older musical mentors, perhaps more than musicians who grow up in many other cities. Powell says of learning from his elders: “I hung out with the old cats. I was taught not only how to play the drums but how to be a man.”

Riley, who’s been a drummer for Wynton Marsalis and George Benson, says in the documentary: “My family were my biggest influences My uncle and my grandfather [band leader Frank Lastie], they showed me how to play the drums. My grandfather showed me how to play [the drums] with butter knives … on the breakfast table … There’s a unique and distinct way we play the bass drums here. It really identifies the New Orleans sound.”

There’s a considerable segment on how African-oriented music intertwined with Native American culture in New Orleans, and this blend gave rise to Mardi Gras Indians, who have elaborate costumes and ritual dancing. The male leaders of these Mardi Gras Indian groups are called Big Chiefs, while the female leaders are called Big Queens. Many of these leaders have their own music groups.

The documentary features interviews with Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. of the Wild Magnolias; his mother Big Queen Laurita Dollis; and 79rs Gang members Big Chief Romeo Bougere of the 9th Ward Hunters and Big Chief Jermaine Bossier of the 7th Ward Creole Hunters. Bougere and Bossier say that even though the 7th Ward and the 9th Ward are considered rival wards with a lot of feuding, these two musical collaborators decided to form the 79rs Gang to show that these two communities can be united through music.

Bougere comments, “We need to get past hating someone because they’re from another ward.” Bossier adds of Mardi Gras Indian culture, “This is a warrior culture. Things happen. But for the most part, it’s about being pretty. It’s about showing off your suit.”

One of the highlights of “Take Me to the River” is the collaboration between Thomas and Ledisi, who is ecstatic over being able to perform and record a song with one of her musical idols. Ledisi (who grew up in the New Orleans music scene, where her mother Nyra Dynese was in a band) practically swoons when Thomas greets her at the studio by giving Ledisi a gift of shrimp and okra. “Yes! She hooked me up, man!” Ledisi exclaims. And later Ledisi literally jumps up and down with joy after she and Thomas record their duet of “Wish Someone Would Care,” one of Thomas’ classics.

Thomas says of Ledisi and the legacy of New Orleans music culture: “As far as I’m concerned, she’s one of the few who will be passing it on … She seems to have a natural knack for it. And that’s a good thing. I feel very good about passing the torch to her.” Ledisi adds, “We don’t want to lose the story. We’ve got to honor our legends while they’re here.”

DiFranco comments, “The deepness and the intactness of the New Orleans community is being threatened. As a result, people here have to be more intentional about staying in touch with those roots, so the continuum is not broken.”

Preservation Hall Jazz Band member Ben Jaffe, whose parents Allan and Sandra Jaffe co-founded the legendary Preservation Hall music venue, says of continuing this legacy: “The most important thing that Preservation Hall can do is make music available to people. When we’re collaborating with musicians, we’re not looking for someone who has an affinity for New Orleans jazz or understands New Orleans jazz. We’re looking for people who share our soul.”

Another documentary highlight is the Neville Brothers’ recording of “Hey Mama (Wild Tchoupitoulas).” Not only was it the first time in years that brothers Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville, Art Neville and Charles Neville were in the same recording studio together, it would also turn out to be the last recording that all four brothers would make together. Charles Neville died in 2018, and Art Neville died in 2019.

Unfortunately, parts of “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” look very dated because of the deaths of some of the documentary’s on-camera participants. By the time “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” was released in theaters in 2022, several people in the documentary had already passed away. They include Charles Neville, Art Neville, Dr. John (who died in 2019) and 5th Ward Weebie (who died in 2020). However, it doesn’t take away from the great music shown in the documentary.

“Take Me to the River: New Orleans” has some flawed editing that doesn’t always make the transition between the topics very smooth. And except for a brief mention by a Neville family member that the Neville Brothers were ripped off by bad business deals at the height of their careers, the documentary glosses over any mention of corruption in the music industry and how it affected New Orleans artists. Ultimately, the best parts of the movie are in seeing the artists and their talent come alive when collaborating in the studio with other artists they admire and respect.

360 Distribution released “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” in select U.S. cinemas, beginning in New Orleans on April 22, 2022, and in New York City and Los Angeles on April 29, 2022.

Review: ‘Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music,’ starring Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, the Neville Brothers, Harry Connick Jr., Irma Thomas, Robert Plant and Keith Richards

May 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Terence Blanchard (far right) and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in “Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

“Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music”

Directed by Michael Murphy

Culture Representation: The documentary “Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music” interviews a racially diverse (African Americans and white people) group of people, including musicians, concert promoters, journalists and music historians.

Culture Clash: The impact of slavery and other forms of racism have shaped the music of New Orleans.

Culture Audience: “Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music” will appeal mostly to people with diverse musical tastes, as well as people who want to learn more about the cultural history of New Orleans.

Allen Toussaint in “Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

Making a documentary about the entire history of music in New Orleans is a very ambitious project, especially if it’s edited into a feature-length film instead of being spread out into an episodic series. But writer/director/producer Michael Murphy has crafted a definitive chronicle of New Orleans music in a film with an impressive range that’s as entertaining as it is educational. Grammy-winning musician Terence Blanchard (one of the documentary’s executive producers) narrates this 104-minute film, which features a “who’s who” of people who are part of New Orleans music history or are connected to it in some way.

In addition to Blanchard, musicians interviewed in the documentary include Big Freedia, Germaine Bazzle, Jon Cleary, Harry Connick Jr., DJ Raj Smoove, Mannie Fresh, Steve Gadd, Leroy Jones, Dave Malone (of the Radiators), Branford Marsalis, Delfeayo Marsalis, Jason Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, PJ Morton, Aaron Neville, Art Neville, Charmaine Neville, Ivan Neville, Robert Plant, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Herlin Riley, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, Reggie Scanlon (of the Radiators), Sting, Bill Summers, Irma Thomas, Reggie Toussaint, Don Vappie, Walter Washington and Dr. Michael White.

Other talking heads in the documentary include Quint Davis, CEO of Festival Productions Inc. New Orleans; Preservation Hall creative director Ben Jaffe; Hogan Jazz Archive curator emeritus Bruce Raeburn; Black Top Records co-founder Hammond Scott; audio engineer Roberta Grace; Center for the Study of the American South associate director William Ferris; and journalists Arthel Neville (daughter of Art Neville) and Alan Light.

Interspersed through the documentary are live performances that are exclusive to the film, from artists such as Blanchard performing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band; a duet with Aaron and Ivan Neville; influential R&B diva Thomas; the Neville Brothers; the Radiators; and Dumpstaphunk.

The film took several years to make, since some of the interviews took place in 2004, according the film’s production notes. And some of the footage filmed for the documentary is of people who have since passed away, such as Art Neville and Dr. John, who both died in 2019.

The movie takes a mostly chronological look at the history of New Orleans music, starting with how the brutality of slavery led to African American slaves developing their own form of music that became the foundation of jazz and the blues, which later influenced the creation of rock and roll, soul/R&B, funk and hip-hop. At times, during the documentary, narrator Blanchard gives a tour to some of the historical sites of New Orleans music, such as the Dew Drop Inn, J&M Recording Studio and the Black Pearl neighborhood that’s known for giving rise to Mahalia Jackson. The Tremé neighborhood (also known as the Cradle of Jazz) is mentioned frequently in the film, since New Orleans is the city that gets the most credit for being the birthplace of jazz.

Several influential New Orleans musicians are given praise and credit for making New Orleans an outstanding music city. Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Prima, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Earl Palmer, singer Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, James Booker, the Neville Brothers, the Marsalis family and Earl King all get special mentions in the film.

In the beginning of the film, Blanchard visits St. Augustine Church, established in 1841 as the oldest African American Catholic parish in the United States. He points out how the outer pews were purchased/reserved for slaves by free people of color so that the slaves would not be shunned at the church services. “Growing up in the church, I have always believed you could never separate spirituality from creativity,” Blanchard says.

Sting (whose first band as a solo artist included Branford Marsalis and other musicians with a jazz background) comments: “New Orleans seems to have a complexity about it that other American cities lack, maybe because of the history built on the tragedy of human trafficking. Let’s be honest about that. But what was created out of that—jazz, the blues—is something that the whole human race should be grateful for. It’s not to be an apologist for that tragedy, but at the same time, it’s amazing how resilient the human spirit is.”

Wynton Marsalis notes that when the slave owners allowed Africans to play drums in Congo Square during the years when slavery was legal, this artistic freedom had an enormous impact on the music culture in New Orleans: “The fact that a slave could be free on a Sunday afternoon for five hours [to play music] made [New Orleans] different from the United States of America. That expression of freedom still echoes.”

Preservation Hall director Jaffe, whose parents founded the world-famous venue, says that New Orleans multiculturalism of Europe (especially France and Spain), Africa and the Caribbean (especially Cuba) is reflected in the melting pot of musical styles that have thrived in New Orleans. The documentary includes a segment on how the drumming styles in New Orleans also affected the rhythms that distinguished New Orleans jazz (or Dixieland jazz) from jazz in other areas of the United States.

Jazz is the most famous type of music to come out of New Orleans, so it’s the music genre that gets most of the screen time in the first half of the documentary. The concept of an instrumental solo in jazz is largely credited to influential jazz musicians such as Armstrong and Morton. Connick says: “New Orleans jazz music will never die, because the feeling we get as performers who play it is the greatest drug in the world.”

The documentary also mentions New Orleans was one of the first big cities in the U.S. that established an opera house, due in large part to composer/pianist Gottschalk, one of the first American musicians to become a star in Europe in the mid-1800s. And the influence of Cuban music in New Orleans also gets its own segment in the documentary.

“Up From the Streets” also addresses how sexism affected female artists who were part of the early New Orleans music scene. Traditionally, women performers were usually allowed to only be singers or piano players. But slowly, the barriers started to open up during the Jazz Age, when bands started to accept women in other roles besides as a vocalist or pianist.

Singer/bass player Bazzle comments on the gender barrier faced by female musicians in New Orleans: “There was a line until we started doing it [crossing the line].” She adds there’s nothing about musical instruments that say only one gender can play those instruments, but there used to be a mentality that women couldn’t play certain instruments—a sexist belief that wasn’t unique to New Orleans but it affected the opportunities that women had in the New Orleans music scene’s earliest decades.

Branford Marsalis remembers how tough his parents, especially his late mother Dolores, used to be when it came to demanding excellence from her musical children. However, he says, “I appreciated having stern parents.” And he says that his parents would constantly remind the Marsalis children about how fortunate they were to benefit from the civil-rights movement and to not take it for granted.

The movie also notes that although New York City is the birthplace of rap/hip-hop, there’s a New Orleans hip-hop scene that really began to thrive in the 1990s with Master P, Birdman, Mystikal and Juvenile, and has continued in the 21st century with Lil Wayne, Big Freedia and the “bounce” craze. However, in its coverage of New Orleans music artists who are influential in the 21st century, the documentary makes one glaring omission, by failing to mention Frank Ocean.

As for people outside the U.S. who are influenced by New Orleans music, British musicians are among the most enthusiastic. Plant says that he and his former Led Zeppelin bandmates Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were “obsessed with the music of New Orleans, so we always made it our business to ensure that when we were on tour, we came to New Orleans. It’s just about the quality of music that I could relate to and just how it really had such a profound effect.” In the documentary, Plant also cites Allen Toussaint as one of his favorite musicians, which is why Plant and Alison Krauss’ 2007 Grammy-winning duet album “Raising Sand” included a cover version of Toussaint’s “Fortune Teller.”

Rolling Stones guitarist Richards praises Earl Palmer (who worked with dozens of artists, including Little Richard and Sam Cooke) as a “real rock and roll drummer. A lot of drummers since then have been able to rock, but very few that have been able to put the roll in.” Richards also says of Ivan Neville (son of Aaron Neville), who’s worked with Richards on several of Richards’ solo projects: “I feel like his older brother or an uncle. I’ve seen him go through a lot of difficulties and pain and seen him come out of it.”

Aaron Neville says of the origins of the Neville Brothers as a musical act: “One thing our parents always wanted was to see all of us together. In New York, we got to go in the studio with the Meters. We didn’t rehearse anything. We already knew what their part was, and it just came out naturally. And we decided to do the Neville Brothers from then on.”

And, of course, one of New Orleans’ hallmarks is that it’s very common for big bands to perform in the middle of streets and have Second Line parades. Morton and Jaffe remembers that one of the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was how the city of New Orleans was like a ghost town deprived of street music for a long period of time before the recovery from the hurricane.

Davis, whose Festival Productions produces the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (also known as Jazz Fest), talks about how JazzFest in 2006—the first Jazz fest after Hurricane Katrina—was an example of how music helped bring New Orleans heal from hurricane disaster. The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music (which opened in 2011) was also founded as a result of helping New Orleans rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

However, some of the people interviewed, including Wynton Marsalis and Mannie Fresh, note that although music can bring people together in New Orleans, after a concert or performance ends, people often go back to living racially segregated lives in the city. Despite the city’s problems, New Orleans has a unique culture that’s been able to thrive largely because of the music. And as Blanchard says in the film, much of New Orleans’ strength comes from “the power of music, the power that it has to change hearts and minds … The most important thing is that it’s not over. This is not the end of the story.”

Eagle Rock Entertainment released “Up From the Street: New Orleans: The City of Jazz” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on May 15, 2020. A portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s Jazz & Heritage Music Relief Fund, a statewide relief initiative supporting Louisiana musicians who have lost income amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYnDVGCFKf8

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