"Make It Funky: the music that took over the world" is a musical tribute to New Orleans, and while its release a scant month after Katrina may look like shameless exploitation, this project had been in the works for some time. Just as ironically, more than any of the numerous news specials or magazine features about the disaster, this DVD captures the full magnitude of what was lost the day the hurricane weakened levees that flooded most of the city. It also hints at why residents will stubbornly rebuild right where they are, no matter what the national opinion.
While, admittedly, the city's virtual destruction makes this a more powerful and poignant film, "Make It Funky" would be a fascinating and thorough documentary no matter what the circumstances. Director Michael Murphy manages to avoid the scattershot "sampler" feel that many music-centered documentaries have, presenting what feels like a full and rich explanation of how music is an integral part of life in New Orleans, and how different musical styles evolved, blended, and mutated in the cosmopolitan city. It's completely as advertised: "a musical gumbo of New Orleans rock, rhythm, and jazz."
The thread that visually and musically runs through "Make It Funky" is a 2004 concert that celebrates the city's rich musical heritage, pays tribute to aging legends, and draws musical testimonies from Bonnie Raitt and Keith Richards. By itself, the concert is great—and it's an option to watch the concert footage in one lively chunk, separate from the documentary. Musican after musician takes the stage with a simple but colorful backdrop and gorgeous photography that captures the performers from multiple camera angles, including some penetrating close-ups. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then shots of legendary drummer Earl Palmer, who's the most recorded drummer in continental history, speaks volumes. Palmer sits at his drums and misses nary a beat, though close-ups reveal that he has a tube in his nose feeding him oxygen from a bag stashed behind him. That's how big a part music plays in the lives of these performers.
But if you watch the entire documentary—and I heartily recommend that you do, in order to better appreciate what these folks are celebrating onstage—you'll see not just a parade of talking heads sharing their insights. You'll also see shots of Mardi Gras Indians performing on the streets, street bands playing at random hours and for no particular reason, showdowns and jams at jazz and blues clubs, shots of the fabled jazz funerals, and stories from residents about the constant music they heard in New Orleans, regardless of the neighborhood. For all of them, music is life, and life is music, you'll come to understand.
It's tough finding musicians articulate enough to explain not only what their music is about, but also what performers and styles have influenced them. There have been a number of documentaries on the Chicago blues, for example, but I have yet to see one which actually explains what constitutes Chicago blues—what makes it different from Mississippi Delta blues, St. Louis blues, or New Orleans blues. But director Murphy finds people who are able to explain—and in some cases, illustrate—exactly what distinguishes New Orleans "funk" and other styles. The talking heads on this documentary are flat-out fascinating, and to have one of them demonstrate the "triplets" that Fats Domino played, but in a lower register than usual, we're able to understand in a nutshell how a simple shift can result in a distinctive sound. Domino is shown playing "Let the Four Winds Blow," while Professor Longhair is shown performing "Big Chief."
The musical tour also takes you to landmark sites, such as the J&M Music Shop where the first recording studio opened in New Orleans, and it became a hangout for musicians. You also get plenty of history on race relations, with anecdotes by more than a few musicians attesting that arrests were common if blacks played with whites—but they all gravitated toward each other because they wanted to play with each other, and learn from each other. Segregation be damned, the musicians were going to come together.
The concert itself is festive and spirited, though the audience—of mixed race, like the performers—takes a while to rise from their reverence of the performers and cut loose in their seats. For the most part, the songs are complete—which, again, is a rarity for documentaries. The concert opens with "Trumpet Kid," featuring a host of trumpeters showing their chops. Then "Skokiaan," with Irvin Mayfield and a number of other musicians, followed by a stand-and-boogie rendition of "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now," performed by the Dirty Dozen Blues Band. After that, it's Mardi Gras time, with Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians performing the classic "Sew-Sew-Sew." Pianist Allen Toussaint is joined by Jon Cleary and others for "Tipitina," then does "Southern Nights" with his orchestra and "Old Records" with Irma Thomas.
From horns and jazz to funk to blues to fusion, the concert seems to evolve as an illustration of the way that the music itself evolved in New Orleans. When Lloyd Price sings "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," a song he wrote, and talks about Little Richard at the famous Dewdrop, where musicians congregated, things take a decidedly rock 'n' roll turn. But the music never settles into a single style. Then it's on to Ivan Neville, drummer Palmer, and Poppa Funk's Boys for a stirring rendition of "Rip It Up," and a mellower medley from Toussaint and his orchestra.
When Bonnie Raitt struts onstage, you come to appreciate that a) she's been invited as a "name" draw for the concert, and b) she's there to testify, like a convert at a revival meeting, to the influence that New Orleans music has had on her own music, and on the world. She wails on a bluesy song, "What Is Success," that all but puts everything into perspective.
Then comes the Funky Meters with "Cissy Strut," and Walter Washington and Poppa Funk's Boys with the more familiar "Barefootin'," followed by the Neville Brothers Band with "Fire in the Bayou" and another legend, Snooks Eaglin on guitar with Poppa Funk's Boys performing "Come On." By the time that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards comes out with his funkified look and jams with Palmer on drums, Walter "Wolfman" Washington and Poppa Funk's Boys, you realize one more thing: that he's not just a name act brought in to fill the house, and he's not just here to talk about New Orleans music. He's here to jam, and that's worth the plane ride across the pond for this musical legend—which says a lot, once more, about the influence and quality of musicians in New Orleans.
Ironically, the only partial song on the concert is the last song, "Hey Pocky Way," which should have been an everybody onstage and rock out kind of finale, but the song was snuffed before anyone could groove. It was a curious and unfortunate end to an evening of otherwise vital and rich musical performances.
Video: This is a quality production, mastered in High Definition and sharp as hell, even with concert lighting and special effects colored lights. Wow, is all I can say. The blues and the hues of the stage really leap out at you, and there isn't a halo to be found in this crowd. The film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and that lends itself well to the unfolding musical drama.
Audio: More wow. The audio is superb. Not DTS, but a pretty vibrant English Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Thai. I'm thinking, though, what, no French? I mean, France is a huge market for American jazz and blues, and New Orleans has a great Creole tradition. What were these people thinking???
Extras: There's one deleted scene that makes me think, as well, What were these people thinking? I mean, when Trombone Shorty struts into the Funky Butt (a club) with his trombone, cockily telling the camera he's going to have a showdown, and then we see him interrupt a performance when another slide trombonist takes a breather and jumps in from the side, only to have the onstage performer jump in again, it speaks volumes, and really should have been included in the documentary. Especially when Trombone Shorty talks about Tuba Fats and we get the sense of how these musicians identify with their instruments.
There are interesting featurettes on New Orleans itself, on J&M Studios, on The Legacy of the Dewdrop Inn, Family, Music and Musicians, and The Mardi Gras Indian Tradition, with plenty of talking heads, location shots, and musical clips. But perhaps the most illuminating featurette zeroes in on the director himself, with Murphy telling how he grew up here and "you literally heard music constantly." That pretty much tells you why he had to make this tribute film, and why it captures the soul of the Crescent City.
Bottom Line: The performances are lively and complete, while the music, the talking heads, and clips of music on the streets presents a veritable storybook that takes you through New Orleans by chapter and verse. Watch this DVD and you'll be all but convinced that this is a city that will bounce back—with plenty of funky style.