When the levees broke and flooded the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th wards of the city of New Orleans in August of 2005, the after-effects went farther than the physical destruction of homes, streets, and basic civic services like utilities, schools, and police enforcement.
Dislocated by the floods were musicians, composers, and journalists people who created, taught, performed, and spread indigenous music to an avid local population who were similarly dislodged from their home turf.
You'd think the music of a major city would quickly bounce back, what with technology able to preserve if not replicate music, and connect musicians from anywhere in the world, but director Robert Mugge (Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax) makes it clear how music in any idiom, or idiomatic hybrid, for that matter - is delicately tied to the men and women who keep it alive through live performances; take away their instruments, clubs, schools, and homes, and you've got a modern diaspora, unable to return to the cultural epicenter that nurtured their creative, personal, and professional lives.
Robert Mugge's documentary was filmed two months after Katrina devastated New Orleans and the surrounding cities, so while there have been efforts to restore the city's cultural infrastructure since 2005, there's no doubt it'll take more than a few years to get things back on track.
Mugge's initial approach is to follow musicians as they travel back and face what's left of their homes and careers, and it's not pretty: infested by mold, the homes and local businesses are uninhabitable, or have been gutted to their skeletal frames; studios, instruments, and various archives are unusable, if not totally destroyed; and entire blocks lie silent in a frieze of post-apocalyptic carnage.
Those who settled in nearby communities and states yearn to return, and while in a kind of exile or limbo, they perform songs that keep the hometown spirit alive via old standards, and new songs that encapsulate their status as culturally dispossessed artists.
On the one hand, the tragedy is unmistaken, yet there's an intriguing subtext that's not officially addressed, but is somewhat conveyed through interviews with club owners in Texas: the stranded musicians have reinvigorated and spiced up the local music scene, and if they stay long enough, it's probable that some aspects of New Orleans' culture will be passed on to audiences and young local musicians who now have live reference points of indigenous musicians in place of CDs and MP3s, or the same top bands that tour every year.
If you strip away the musical numbers and some are quite long Mugge's doc would run much faster, but in showcasing a mix of established, legendary, and green-behind-the-ears bands, one gets a vivid impression of New Orleans' musical diversity: straight blues, funk, jazz, Dixieland jazz, folk and zydeco are just a few of the styles that exist in traditional and fusion forms.
The longer the cultural practitioners are away from their magnetic home turf, however, their distinctive sound could be diluted, bands could break up, or they could remain in stasis, with core musicians scattered throughout the American South, still unable to return home, and endangering a unique musical ecology.
It's a theme that was similarly explored in Andre Gladu's stellar NFB triptych of Maroon, Zarico, and Liberty Street Blues, although the first two films focused more on the preservation of traditions as each new generation was losing interest in its own musical roots.
Liberty Street Blues, however, is worth checking out, because it examines the annual parades of neighbourhood chiefs that Mugge briefly touches upon in an interview with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. In 1988, Gladu was present in the wards before the flood damage, and his camera traced the quirky origins of the parades, and the annual musical 'challenges.' Subtle or striking, local interaction keeps musicians on their toes, and as Mugge demonstrates, it enlivens the whole routine of playing gigs in bars and clubs to audiences whose own lives are glued to an active music scene.
Mugge's doc and the DVD's supplements don't offer a recent follow-up, but within the two month post-Katrina period, a lot was done by New Orleans, neighbouring cities, and organizations like Tipitinas to help musicians get back on their feet and bring back some bands for rare concerts arguably one of the most important steps in healing a city, and establishing some level of normalcy amid lingering devastation.
Starz Home Entertainment adds some complete bonus music performances in a separate extras gallery, along with a short vocal performance by Big Chief Monk Boudreaux.
The most intriguing extras are A Short History of New Orleans Piano with Jon Cleary that has the pianist flowing through the main stylistic movements; and "A New Orleans Rescue" with General Manager Dave Spizale of radio station KRVS recounting his surreal daytrip to New Orleans after the levee had broken.
Spizale and his son were compelled to help when New Orleans put out a call for any owners of flat-bottomed boats to come help rescue stranded locals, and with stills, Spizale describes the chaos through which he navigated before launching his boat off a turnpike, and later rescued a few people before returning home. It's a simple recollection of what it's like to weed through shock, horror, and disorganization, and the potential dangers that seem more suitable to a post-apocalyptic disaster flick than real life.
Starz' DVD offers a crisp DVD transfer, and while Mugge's sound transitions are a bit rough and abrupt at times, one gets the feeling the harsh edits were deliberately used to contrast the more fluid (and soothing) edits that make up the final reel of the doc, including the live concert that flips between two live performances of a singular song.
A memorable and thought-provoking doc on the fragility of music in the Digital Age.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan