A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New MexicanMay 19, 2006
New Orleans soul matriarch Irma Thomas is leading a camera crew through her hurricane-damaged home. She points to what looks like a bas-relief portrait of herself on the floor. Like virtually everything else in the house, it’s water-damaged.
“Ironically, it looks like I’ve got a tear coming out of my eyes,” Thomas says with a laugh. “I’ve had a few of those, trust me.”
This is a scene from New Orleans Music in Exile, a new film from music-documentary master Robert Mugge, scheduled to debut Friday, May 19, on Starz InBlack, a premium cable/satellite channel.
The film, shot last fall, tells the story of Hurricane Katrina from the perspective of those engaged in New Orleans’ greatest export — music.
If, like me, you’re one of those people who shed a tear of joy when Fats Domino was found alive in Katrina’s aftermath after being reported missing for several days and who followed Web sites that listed New Orleans musicians who had been accounted for and those still missing, this film is for you.
“The story of what’s happening in New Orleans is so big, you can turn on a camera anywhere there and get something interesting,” Mugge told me in an interview last November, shortly after he’d shot most of the documentary. “You can talk to anyone you see on the street and get a great story. So music makes it a manageable focus.”
Mugge lets musicians tell their stories about how the hurricane devastated their world. Thomas takes us into what’s left of her nightclub, the Lion’s Den. There she points out the Christmas lights that Mugge and his crew put up about 10 years before while filming a happier documentary.
Similarly, piano man Eddie Bo goes into his coffee shop for the first time with his manager and sister, several weeks after Katrina. It’s lucky that the film doesn’t come in Smell-o-Rama.
The film takes us to cities musicians have fled to — possibly for good. Bo’s gone to Lafayette, La. Cyril Neville and The Iguanas moved to Austin, Texas, a city whose live-music scene rivals that of New Orleans. Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and ReBirth Brass Band went to Houston, where they found a home at a joint called the Red Cat Jazz Café.
These exiles are grateful to be welcomed in their new locales. “All of the musicians here have opened their arms to us like you would not believe,” Ruffins says.
Eddie Wilson, owner of Threadgill’s in Austin, tells how singer Marcia Ball approached him in September to tell him that Neville was moving there. “She told me, Wilson, you take care of these people. And in her eyes she says ‘or your ass is grass.’” Neville got a regular gig at the famed restaurant.
But their homesickness is obvious.
Even though Ruffins is well-known in his home town, he had to prove himself at a weeknight open jam session at Red Cat before he got a steady gig. In an interview in the film, he nostalgically talks about how he’d walk up the street before a gig in New Orleans and catch five different bands before his own show.
Phil Frazier of ReBirth Brass Band regrets the band is no longer able to do all the little gigs — the backyard birthday parties, the jazz funerals — it used to do.
One of the film’s major undercurrents is the fear that even if New Orleans is rebuilt, it will never be the same. Will the city rise again? Or will it be transformed into a Disney-like tourist playground?
“There’s gonna be a great big fight that’s gonna go on for who’s gonna own what in New Orleans and whether that’s really gonna be New Orleans,” says Neville, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the New Orleans power structure. “It’s a spiritless body,” he says. “And that’s all it’s gonna be without those people from the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th wards.”
Dr. John is more optimistic. “Well, I can’t say what it could be now,” he drawls. “But I know that with some serious help, it could be New Orleans, because we plannin’ on comin’ back stronger than ever.” But that promise is somewhat at odds with the weary and worried expression the Doctor has throughout the documentary.
As in all Mugge films (others include Deep Blues, Last of the Mississippi Jukes and Gospel According to Al Green), the music speaks even more clearly than his interview subjects. There are some dynamic performances here.
My favorite new discovery is ReBirth Brass Band, which performs a song called “Lord, Lord, Lord” in a Houston park.
Dr. John does a spirited take on his hoodoo classic “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” (shown just before an actual living-room voodoo ceremony shot in a neighborhood where electricity hadn’t been restored).
The Iguanas do a Mexed-up version of the Nick Cave song “Right Now I’m A-Roamin’” at the Continental Club in Austin.
And it wouldn’t be a film about Katrina without Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.” Originally appearing on Newman’s 1974 epic album Good Old Boys, this tune has virtually become the official theme song of Katrina. With its reference to a cynical President Coolidge coming down with “a little fat man” to survey the damage of a terrible flood and the refrain “Louisiana, Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away,” Newman’s lyrics resonate stronger than ever. Aaron Neville, who had recorded the song before, sang it on the Concert for Hurricane Relief television special last September. Newman cut a new version of it for the Our New Orleans benefit CD. And Marcia Ball does a soulful version in the documentary.
I hope Starz releases the film as a DVD and that it includes full performances of these songs and others. The importance of New Orleans to American music has become almost a cliché since Katrina. But Mugge’s film shows just how true that truism is and what a cultural tragedy that hurricane created.
On the radio: There’s no soundtrack album,at least not yet, for New Orleans Music in Exile. But I’ll play some of the music and other works by the musicians discussed here on Terrell’s Sound World, Sunday on KSFR, 90.7 FM. The show starts at 10 p.m., and the New Orleans set will start just after 11 p.m.
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