Culturally, there are two candidates for most important city of the 20th century, Hollywood and New Orleans. You’re saying it has to be Hollywood, right? No, New Orleans, hands down.
A world capital of film could have happened anywhere (for a while, in the ‘20s, Berlin was a real contender). Only one place could have been the source of a democratic, rhythm-driven, highly accessible (even irresistible) popular music whose various permutations — jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, rap, hip-hop — would rule the world’s ears and conquer its feet. There could be only one place because no other city was so situated as to draw on African, African-American, Cuban, French, and Spanish influences to create a unique set of sounds that would prove almost universally appealing.
The food in New Orleans is really good, too.
Ben Jaffe, creative director of the city’s Preservation Hall, makes the point succinctly in Michael Murphy’s smart, lively documentary “Up From the Streets: New Orleans: City of Music.” “The things that happened here didn’t happen anywhere else,” Jaffe says. Why and how they happened, and keep on happening, is what the documentary is about.
A fine primer on the Crescent City and its impact on the sound of the 20th century (the 21st, too), “Up From the Streets” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room, at coolidge.org/films/streets, starting May 15. If anything, the film does a bit too much, going for variety and breadth sometimes at the expense of depth. There are a lot of bases to touch here, and touching pretty much all of them means several get touched too lightly. Jazz trumpeter and New Orleans native Terence Blanchard serves as a passionate, highly informed guide.
The numerous talking heads heard from come in two varieties. The locals like Jaffe know what they’re talking about and do so engagingly. There are also high-profile names presumably brought in for crowd-appeal purposes — Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. The sincerity of their enthusiasm for New Orleans and its music is not in doubt. The value of what they have to say is. All of their insights combined can’t match those from any one of the no fewer than four Marsalis brothers heard from: Wynton, Branford, Jason, and Delfeayo.
“Up From the Streets” also features archival interviews, period footage, vintage photographs, present-day performance clips, and some New Orleans sightseeing. Nor does “Up From the Streets” stint on streets, especially those with Second Line parades. “The street has the beat,” says the drummer Herlin Riley. “And the beat embodies the rhythm, and the rhythm embodies the culture.”
The ultimate New Orleans “street” is the Mississippi. One benefit of streaming is that viewers don’t have to worry about arriving late, thus missing the opening views of Blanchard by the river. They are strikingly beautiful. They’re not as beautiful, though, as a Louis Armstrong solo, a Mahalia Jackson melisma, a Fats Domino chorus, a Professor Longhair riff, or the musicality of the late Allen Toussaint’s speaking voice. The man didn’t even need to sing to sound melodious. He was very New Orleans that way.
UP FROM THE STREETS: NEW ORLEANS: CITY OF MUSIC
Written and directed by Michael Murphy. Available via Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room, coolidge.org/films/streets. 105 minutes. Unrated (as PG: the occasional casual obscenity)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.