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Funk on Film 

If there's one thing New Orleanians seem to excel at, it's throwing a party, so it's no surprise that Rene Broussard, director of Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, is opening the theater for a week to celebrate Zeitgeist's 19th anniversary. The ever-scrappy, ever-eclectic Zeitgeist plans to reopen full time in January, but nevertheless will screen films from around the world starting Wednesday.

The anniversary weekend ends Saturday with two showings of Make it Funky, the concert documentary directed by Michael Murphy and which celebrates the music of New Orleans. A star-studded concert at the Saenger Theatre on April 27, 2004, provided the live footage that is the heart of the movie, and Murphy uses footage of New Orleans and interviews with Earl Palmer, the Neville Brothers and Jon Cleary, among others, to lend context to New Orleans and its music.

Murphy taps Art Neville to serve as narrator -- an inspired choice. Neville's baritone and accent lend the narration a certain gravitas and personality. At times, it's obvious he's reading a script, not because of a weakness in the script but because the lines lack his sly wit. When he and son Ian are interviewed together, Murphy asks Ian if Art made him play guitar. Ian says no, after which Art says, "That's what I thought you'd say." As impractical as it might be, it's hard to hear moments like that or his comment on the Meters -- "We lost our cents. Then we lost our sense." -- and not want to hear that sort of offhanded editorializing throughout the movie.

At the concert, celebrity guests such as Joss Stone and Jonny Lang and the out-of-town rhythm section muddied the shows message a bit. The films point is far less conflicted, as New Orleans musicians are the clear stars. Out-of-towners Steve Jordan, Willie Weeks and Danny Korchmar remain the heart of the band, but only drummer Jordan gets any real screen time. Bonnie Raitt's treatment of Allen Toussaint's "What Is Success" -- which she had recorded on her 1974 masterpiece, Streetlights -- is one of the movie's highlights, and she provides an eloquent observation of the music and her relationship with Toussaint. Keith Richards, bless his heart, comes off as little more than an enthusiastic fan; his version of Fats Domino's "I'm Ready" little more than spirited.

The film now has a layer of poignancy that it didn't have when it was shot because it's a portrait of a city whose relationship to the past it represents isn't as clear as it once was. Murphy's shots of the city's skyline at dusk and Bourbon Street at night are so beautiful and rich with color that it's hard to watch them and not wonder if they'll ever look that pretty again. The footage of Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands in the Treme make you wonder when you'll see such parades again, and when you do, will they represent neighborhood pride or something different?

Make it Funky ultimately returns us to the questions we keep asking ourselves, whether we want to or not -- how will the music scene recover, and what form will a recovered music scene take? In a recent Village Voice article on New Orleans and the New York City punk club CBGB, Robert Christgau wrote, "Although New Orleans is the wellspring of American music if anywhere is ... the city is kind of like CBGB the way it rests on its musical laurels." If we get everybody back and much of the music made in the city sounds like it was written before 1965, was anything achieved?

In Make it Funky, for instance, it is good to see and hear Allen Toussaint be the elder statesman he is, presenting a medley of the great R&B pop songs he wrote. It's great, though, to hear him sing "Mi Amour" like he has an emotional investment in the lyrics on the new, Joe Henry-produced I Believe to My Soul. On the album, Henry produces songs for Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles and Billy Preston, and he doesn't try to recreate the past. Instead, he tries and succeeds in capturing the essence of soul today. In the movie, Thomas sings "Old Records" and it's nostalgic, but her Henry-produced version of Bill Withers' "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh" deserves to be listened to 20 years from now as an old record.

It doesn't take an outsider to update the New Orleans sound. Big Sam's Funky Nation -- which appears in Make it Funky -- and the Soul Rebels are doing it. Rebelution credibly harnesses much of what makes brass bands exciting, but links it to contemporary street culture instead of street culture circa 1972 (or 1962, or before). They aren't the only groups that are actively contemplating the aesthetics of New Orleans music but they highlight an issue returning musicians need to consider. If they return as merchants of nostalgia, they'll inadvertently be doing their part to turn the city into a Disneyland of soul.

click to enlarge Troy Andrews, Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield share a - laugh during their trumpet-summit performance recorded - for Make it Funky.
  • Troy Andrews, Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield share a laugh during their trumpet-summit performance recorded for Make it Funky.
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