Fans of film, music, and the city of New Orleans can enjoy a gumbo feast this month, as two new documentaries drop on local screens. South by Southwest 2022 selection Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story opens here May 27, preceded this week by Take Me to the River New Orleans. By happy coincidence, the two films provide a combined portrait and celebration of the music and culture of the Big Easy.
Jazz Fest was filmed during the 2019 50th anniversary of the spring music festival, and is primarily a history of the fest and its place in the city's broader story. Take Me to the River touches on that history, but primarily looks forward: The film's through line is a series of studio recording sessions featuring legendary New Orleans musicians performing with and mentoring younger artists – in the words of filmmaker Martin Shore, "breaking down the barriers of generations, gender, and genres." An opening session features Soul Queen Irma Thomas in a duet with younger Ledisi on the R&B classic "Wish Someone Would Care." The warmth between the two performers, inside and outside the song, certainly sounds genuine, and establishes the generous mood of the whole film.
This is actually the second Take Me to the River film – the first was set in Memphis, another stop on the Mississippi. In an early May phone conversation, Shore – preparing for a House of Blues promotional event that night in New Orleans – said the initial impetus for the project was the sudden loss of four Memphis musical giants over a few months in 2008-2009: Isaac Hayes, Jim Dickinson, Willie Mitchell, and Alex Chilton. Shore was visiting producer Dickinson's Zebra Ranch studio in Memphis and, he recalled, "I had an epiphany … We needed to tell the story of where American music came from, documented for younger generations, and for generations to come." The Memphis-based album-and-film project began soon thereafter, and "about halfway through," he and his collaborators realized they would need to follow that work with another on New Orleans.
"The Mississippi Delta is the center of a true American story – the Memphis music that grows out of country and blues, and its Americana roots," said Shore. "Then, New Orleans is the first example of 'world music' – a musical gumbo that finds its influences and inspirations all over the world: West Africa, Caribbean, Eastern European, and elsewhere, to produce this very unique music and cultural scene."
Both films are also marked by loss – of elder musicians passing on during the projects, including Bobby "Blue" Bland, Art and Charles Neville, Dr. John, and several others – and by historical tragedies: the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (devastating Memphis) and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005). Those events became demarcation lines in the histories of each city, while reemphasizing the urgency of maintaining the cultural heritage.
For Shore, the history created a "three-act play" structure for the films: before, during, and after those world-altering events. They meant "tectonic shifts" to the cities, including an "element of tragedy" followed by the sense of "a phoenix rising up," expressed in a return of the music. The studio sessions, he said, allow viewers to "feel the experience of creating something new while learning about the past."
Shore said he hopes his new film will receive an Austin welcome like Jazz Fest did, and that it will also lead viewers back to New Orleans. "It's a wonderful warm-up to what's here. … Go to the music clubs, support the local musicians, experience the food and the culture."
Take Me to the River New Orleans opens at the Alamo Mueller, May 20. Read our review here.
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