VIFF 2022: Music Pictures: New Orleans

Blues legend Little Freddie King one of four legendary New Orleans musical acts featured in the documentary Music Pictures: New Orleans

Sometimes if you’re tired of documentaries that try to push a one-sided political message, a musical documentary can fix that. The documentary Music Pictures: New Orleans is an insightful documentary of a town with a century of a music legacy.

The film begins with Irma Thomas. She has been dubbed the Soul Queen Of New Orleans. They show her as she’s finishing up a recording session. She had a Top 40 hit in 1964 with “Wish Someone Would Care.” She’s had many songs and albums on the R & B charts. However she’s often been overlooked by the likes of Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner. She tells of her career. She’s had a career since she was 19. She has had cases where she has been a victim of racism in music. Nevertheless she’s fought on and continues to record. She also tells of living in New Orleans, of her experience, of her loves, of raising a family.

The second part comes after the passing of one of Thomas’ band members. Leading the funeral parade is led by the Treme Brass Band. The vignette then focuses on Treme Brass Band leader Benny Jones. The marching brass band is an important part of New Orleans. They’re the band that would perform during festivals, especially Mardi Gras, and funeral processions. Benny was born in a family of musicians and he always wanted to be a part of it. He even married a woman who had family in music. The film goes into how he founded his first brass band, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and then goes into his latest brass band, the Treme Brass Band.

The third vignette focuses on blues legend Little Freddie King. King was actually born in Mississippi and moved to New Orleans when he was 14. He recorded his first album in 1969. In 1976 he did a European Tour with Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker. However his second album didn’t come until 1996. Since then, he has been more active and has release twelve albums since. King has performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since 1980 and is a charter member.

The fourth and final vignette is with Ellis Marsalis Jr. He himself is a renowned jazz musician who comes from a family of musicians and is widely regarded as the patriarch in the “First Family Of Jazz.” However in his latest venture, he finds himself working with his youngest son Jason and Jason’s daughter Marley Marsalis in recording his latest album For All We Know. Jason plays xylophone and Marley plays percussion and piano. Returning to a family project was the furthest thing from his mind before this project. Over time, it grew to be something he liked doing and he became happy returning to family roots. In the end we have an album of three generations of Marsalises. Also in the end, it would be Ellis’ last work. Ellis died in April 2020: one of the earliest fatalities of the COVID pandemic. The film also shows images of New Orleans’ legendary night clubs closed because of the pandemic.

For those who like music, New Orleans is a city that has some of the biggest music history. I mean what first comes to mind when you hear New Orleans? Most likely it would be things like Mardi Gras, Dixieland, brass bands. Those that know music will know that it’s the sounds of New Orleans that would be most influential in some of the biggest music of the 20th Century and sounds that are very influential today. The town gave birth to jazz before it took over all of the US. The brass bands of New Orleans are influential in the sound of jazz. New Orleans didn’t give birth to blues, but New Orleans did a lot of shaping of blues. New Orleans has done a lot of shaping of soul music, too.

This documentary is a good reminder of how New Orleans has been quite the shaper of music. It originated sounds and shaped a lot of sounds. This documentary gives good examples of New Orleans musicians and vocalists who have had an impact on these sounds. The film shows a soul legend who is often overlooked, a leader of a legendary brass band, a blues legend, and a jazz father. Through out the documentary, we learn of what led them to their sounds. Some may be for income, some to marry, some because they loved it, each one had their unique story. All of them did talk of the ups and downs. They talk of successes and setbacks. However as we hear each story and listen to the music, we get a good sense of it.

The final vignette of Ellis Marsalis and his family is especially poignant because it’s a reminder that New Orleans should not just be admired for the music of its past. New Orleans is also very much in the present of music and in the future. That is especially made aware in the vignette as he works with son Jason and granddaughter Marley. That was unique that such a vignette was done. The film could have been about Ellis, his life and the careers of his two famous sons Brantford and Wynton, but instead it focused on Ellis with his youngest son and granddaughter. Almost like a legend passing down sounds to the younger generations. And just before his death.

This is a very good work from writer/director Ben Chace. Chace is not known for doing documentary films. His previous films Wah Do Dem and Sin Alas are live-action fiction films and has only previously written and directed a single documentary short. This is his first attempt at a feature-length documentary and it’s impressive. It doesn’t offer any tricks and twists one would see in modern documentaries. Nevertheless it allows the musicians to tell the story. It allows the viewers to hear the music. It allows viewers also to witness other behind-the-scenes looks at making music and working with musicians. It’s a film one who is into music would take a lot of interest in. Especially those that would want to pursue music as a profession. Chace picks out the most signature sounds of New Orleans music, matches them up with New Orleans’ biggest living examples of the sounds, and shows off how they embody the sound of their genre and the sound of New Orleans.

Music Pictures: New Orleans is a great documentary showcasing musicians, both individuals and groups, and how their sound has an impact not only on the sounds of New Orleans but on musical genres as a whole. It’s as much about its past legacy as it is about its present and future.

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