The 400-Word Review: Up from the Streets
By Sean Collier
May 13, 2020
Art — particularly American art — is usually the product of a collision of cultures. For evidence, look no farther than New Orleans.
The city’s cultural traditions are a blend of African, European, Caribbean and Native American influences, resulting in a distinct heritage. Other cities in the United States have unique combinations of history; none have quite the same combination as New Orleans.
“Up From the Streets: New Orleans — The City of Music” is a loving, easygoing history of the city’s place in music history directed by music documentarian Michael Murphy. It’s a reminder that, without the particular makeup of that city, there would be no roots for rhythm and blues, rock and roll, modern pop, hip-hop and most other branches of the American musical family tree.
The film also serves as evidence that all music (or all music that resonates, at least) is political. The earliest foundations of the city’s all-important tradition were laid by African slaves, granted a brief period each Sunday to gather in Congo Square. The explosion of jazz, from Bourbon Street through the nation, was rebellious. New Orleans soul and gospel provided a soundtrack for civil rights. Even in modern history, it was the return of music to the city that marked the beginning of post-Katrina rebuilding.
“Up From the Streets” is not, however, on a mission to link America’s political and musical development through the French Quarter. It’s primarily a work of history and tribute. The film is narrated by Terence Blanchard (a six-time Grammy winner himself), who connects the dots from one pivotal figure in the city’s musical history to the next.
This is when the film is at its most enjoyable; hearing reminiscences and celebrations of these figures, in a freewheeling web of influence and impact, is impressive and infectious. Early pioneers including Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino and Jelly Roll Morton are covered at length, but “Up From the Streets” is not done in the past; the lineage traces through the likes of Allain Toussaint, the Neville Brothers and Dr. John, traveling all the way to latter-day descendents including bounce icon Big Freedia and jam-band mainstays Galactic.
There’s no narrative innovation here — you’ll get performances, interviews and archival footage — but none is necessary. The music of New Orleans speaks for itself, making its own case as a vital wellspring. There’s plenty to learn here. And, inevitably, you’ll end up dancing.
My Rating: 7/10
“Up From the Streets” will begin streaming on virtual cinema services Friday, May 15.