Documentary Review: ‘Take Me To The River: New Orleans’

Greetings again from the darkness. Most anyone who enjoys various types of music has at least some basic knowledge of the New Orleans music scene. The film’s director is music producer Martin Shore, who also directed TAKE ME TO THE RIVER, a 2014 documentary on Stax Records and the Memphis music scene. Shore mostly sticks to the same format here by blending the past generation with the new, while mixing in tidbits of history from the area.

Narrator John Goodman opens by attributing the uniqueness of New Orleans to the convergence of cultures from Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa. Our first studio sequence pairs up the great Irma Thomas with Ledisi, two powerful singers. Including a clip of young Irma with Dick Clark on “American Bandstand” in 1964 was a terrific lead-in to the duet, and this segment also features the amazing bass work and musical instincts of George Porter Jr. This is also when Shore directs the conversation to passing the musical torch from one generation to the next.

Shore hits multiple recording studios around town, and exposes us to many local and influential musicians. The segments come and go very quickly, which is somehow both the film’s strength and weakness. We get a taste of many, but a full serving of few. Multiple New Orleans drummers take us through the tradition, as does the Dirty Dozen Brass band. Congo Square and Preservation Hall are visited and discussed briefly, though most of the screen time is spent with collaborators in studio. One of the best is the jam with Ani DiFranco and “Wolfman” Washington.

Many styles of music have roots in New Orleans, including: Jazz, R&B, funk, zydeco, and even gospel and rap. Shore gives us almost nothing, or at least very little, on such key players as Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, and the Marsalis family; yet, he covers The Meters and has a nice tribute to Allen Toussaint. The rap session is probably a bit too long, and focuses on Manny Fresh, G-Eazy, and Snoop Dogg. Two highlights of the film are one of Dr. John’s final recording sessions of “Jock-A-Mo” (the Iko Iko song), and the amazing recording session after the reunion of the Neville family (extra special considering the recent losses).

During this year’s SXSW I watched the documentary, JAZZ FEST: A NEW ORLEANS STORY. That film focused on the festival itself and what it has meant to music and the city. For this film, Mr. Shore touches on Mardi Gras Indians, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which cost the city many of its local musicians. One of those in the film mentions that in New Orleans “we look back to go forward”, and that respect for history and roots of the music being played is crucial for the next generation.

Opens in theaters on May 20, 2022

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