Jazz on Film: "Make It Funky" doc celebrates New Orleans music

Aug 1, 2014

(Editor's note: As we anticipate the "New Orleans Rhythm Revue" performing at the KUVO signature fundraising event "Live at the Vineyards" on Aug. 9, 2014, we're falling in love with the funky side of New Orleans music.  We hope this review has the same affect on you!)

New Orleans is a mysterious place that draws people to it and brings them back again and again. Perhaps because it is literally eight feet below sea level and therefore its dead are buried above ground. Perhaps it is because Haitian Voodoo, Cuban Santeria, and Nigerian Yoruban religions mixed freely with Catholicism and call it home. As a port city, New Orleans has always been open to those arriving from other places: the French, Spanish, African, along with Native Americans. Some say New Orleans is the northern most port in the Caribbean. I say it is the most unique city in America, and more than any other city in America, New Orleans symbolizes the concept of the melting pot.  But down there they know that it’s what’s in the pot that matters—the roux, the Gumbo, Jambalaya, Etouffee, and of course the Funk.

The documentary “Make It Funky” (2005, directed by Michael Murphy) is a celebration of all things musical in New Orleans. It is built around a performance by a who’s who of its favorite sons and daughters across a gumbo of styles, from its Brass Bands to Jazz to Blues, to Mardi Gras Indians,Rock and Roll, R & B, and of course, undergirding it all is the Funk. We get to see Trombone Shorty dueling with Big Sam, The Mardi Gras Indians Golden Eagles with Monk Boudreaux in full regalia, master pianist and composer Allen Toussaint in a grand piano duet of styles with Jon Cleary, master drummer Earl Palmer, the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas, Kermit Ruffins, as well as Bonnie Raitt and even Keith Richards all pay their musical respects to this great city.

It also includes a history lesson with archival footage on the development of its music including its unique contribution to what we know as funk.  Funk is as mysterious a concept at the city itself and it is arguable that in addition to being the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans also gave birth to funk. It certainly produced its own style of it that is much admired, imitated and sampled. Art Neville, founder of the Meters as well as the Neville Brothers, narrates the historical portion of the film. The origins of funk come from the concept of the Second Line, something else that is unique to New Orleans and comes from its legacy of marching bands that both mourned the deceased into their final resting place and danced and cakewalked a celebration of their lives all the way back home.

New Orleans builds its music from the bottom up, starting with the bass drum and then the dialogue and interplay between it and the snare, first in their parade and funeral bands and naturally extending into all other forms. To understand the New Orleans style of funk one needs to keep in mind the concepts of the space between the notes, what isn’t played, and the pauses between beats (one and two and…). That percussive attack is found in its piano players as well as its horns. For a town known for great piano players, there has been an incredible line of drummers who called New Orleans home. Baby Dodds, Earl Palmer, Ed Blackwell, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, Herlin Riley, Stanton Moore just to name a few. Their approach to the drums draws directly from the Second Line and the parade vibe that was at its core a visceral and kind of unconscious pelvic dance that makes you want to get up and shake your groove thing.

The historical portion of the film introduces us to the origins of the Second Line and its cultural as well as musical significance. It tours the city and takes us into the careers of some of the city’s most famous —Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and the Meters, and visits the clubs and studios where the music was made. It also includes the history of race relations, unjust and trying.  It is also surprising to learn how and why New Orleans had fewer issues with integration than elsewhere around the country during Jim Crow days. Some people who discovered New Orleans via the HBO show “Treme,” (the New Orleans neighborhood that gave birth to so many great musicians from Louis Armstrong to Kermit Ruffins) may see where the producers got some of their ideas.  Released only months before Katrina devastated that city, the film also carried a level of sadness as many of the performers in the film lost their homes and were forced to relocate.

At its core, “Make It Funky” is a love letter to that city. As a documentary it educates the viewer to the importance music has always played and shares the stories of some of its most famous as well as lesser-known musical innovators. As a concert it is a celebration of the infectious grooves and rhythms across some of the many styles of music that, taken together, make New Orleans such a special, mysterious and funky, funky place. As they say down there, “Laissez les bon temps roulez!” (Let The Good Times Roll.)