Documentary Review: Musicians perform the Funk in the Big Easy — “Take Me to the River: New Orleans”

Seems like a week doesn’t go by when somebody isn’t serving up a fresh batch of New Orleans music and New Orleans musicians in documentary form.

So for everybody who missed the earlier takes, and who can’t wait for the history of “Jazz Fest” doc that’s coming in a week or so, here’s “Take Me to the River: New Orleans.” Record producer and sometime filmmaker Martin Shore delivers a sequel to 2014’s “Take Me to the River” about the soul sound of Stax Records in Memphis, this time digging into the roots of funk and the ongoing evolution of jazz.

He spent years rounding up the vast extended Neville family members and Doctor John, Irma Thomas and legends from this or that brass band — Preservation Hall to Soul Rebels. He’d park them in the studio for live-on-tape sessions with Ledisi (a duet with New Orleans soul-pop legend Irma Thomas), Ledisi, Ani DiFranco, Snoop Dogg and others, contemporizing their sound and giving stars or rising stars the chance to work with their heroes.

Drummer Shannon Powell displays his mastery of the sticks and toothless grin as he shows off at this “I beat to eat” skills at his kit. Jon Batiste talks about the musical ferment one grows up in there, the mentors, teachers and long line of musicians who somebody coming up can learn from. Batiste learned how to lead a band, just by watching the legions of them performing at any given time in and around the city.

The music bumps and twists, roars and toots — Dixieland to funk, blues to soul, all of it tracing its roots back to Congo Square’s drum shows during the 18th and 19th century, when the city’s slaves would gather to play.

Anecdotes pour out and John Goodman narrates and reminds us of all the famous names in New Orleans music captured in this film who passed away before Shore got it finished.

As a film, its mix of interviews, little snippets of street life and Goodman’s drawled history lessons take a back seat to the loose and breezy recording sessions all around town. There’s no re-inventing the wheel, here. As New Orleans already went to the trouble of inventing the music and building a culture around it, all Shore had to do was point his camera towards the sound of the drums and he was good to go. He also convinced all these icons of the scene to sit down and gather round one more time for the microphones, recording gear and cameras, which is the real point here.

No, it’s not a cinematic wonder. But it’s educational, all this stuff about “second lines” and the “Habanera tempo” who learned from whom and who wrote or invented what. And Shore is to be celebrated for getting all these folks documented and down on film before it’s too late.

Rating: unrated, some profanity

Cast: Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Ledisi, G-Eazy, Snoop Dogg, Charles Neville, Allen Toussaint, Jon Batiste and Doctor John, with many others, narrated by John Goodman

Credits: Directed by Martin Shore, scripted by Robert Gordon and Martin Shore. A 360 Distribution release.

Running time: 1:50

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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