by David Cornelius
The timing of “Make It Funky!” couldn’t have been worse - and couldn’t have been better. The movie, which documents a 2004 concert celebrating the music of New Orleans, arrives on video four weeks after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city. Watching it now, with the devastation behind us, is a bittersweet affair; we’re reminded so much of what was lost, yet we’re so thrilled that we become filled with hope for the future.The film continues the trend kicked off by such concert documentaries as “Standing In the Shadows of Motown” and “Only the Strong Survive.” Like those films, “Funky” blends electric concert footage with an in-depth retrospective of the featured genre - in this case, it’s the history of music in New Orleans. It’s a hard genre to pin down, really; when one participant calls the city’s eclectic mix of jazz, blues, soul, R&B, funk, and rock a “gumbo,” he may be using a cliché, but he’s also so very right. No single type of music reigns in the Big Easy (in fact, late in the film, we’re reminded that musicians who work here don’t think of themselves as genre musicians; they’re not jazz musicians or blues musicians or rock musicians, they’re simply musicians).
"And they do indeed make it funky."
The film is at its best when detailing the history of the city, explaining how the area’s unfiltered fusion of cultures brought in a wide variety of styles, which, when combined with the community’s affinity for music (it seems to be soaked right down to the bone with locals), helped form an indefinable but instantly recognizable sound. We even get Keith Richards explaining how in England, all American music sounded the same - except, of course, for New Orleans music.
Combined with the study of the musical history is a look at the social and racial issues of the past century. We learn how black musicians, denied insurance elsewhere, teamed up to form their own club, who then worked to help each other out. We hear how disc jockeys were fired in other towns for playing “black music” but found a welcoming home in New Orleans. We ache at the memory of bigotry that divided the South, and we cheer at the strength some had to stand up to it.
The final ingredient here is praise. As the city’s musical history unfolds, we’re introduced to many of its best players, who spend most of their time talking about how great other players are. It’s a back-slapping parade on display, but hey, these folks deserve it. The compliments are endless, but it’s all done in forwarding the history, and so the stories told here act as a friendly introduction to any newcomer to this musical scene, and as a welcome trip down memory lane for the lifetime fans.
The real hook of the film, of course, is the concert. While not as jaw-dropping as that of, say, the blues tribute “Lightning In a Bottle,” there are still enough awe-inducing moments to make this well worth your while. The self-proclaimed gumbo of the city is on display, as the concert coordinators work to include as wide a mix as possible. Small bands, large bands, a quiet piano duet, a house-shaking rocker led by guitar legend Snooks Eaglin. The Golden Eagle Mardi Gras Indians bring some native culture to the audience. Archive footage of Professor Longhair allows the movie watcher to taste what local flavor the concertgoer could not.
The concert does have its down moments - a few of the songs came off as too slick for my tastes (your tastes, of course, may vary), one or two others simply lacked that vital kick, and Richards, tearing out a cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready,” reminds us why Mick, not Keith, got to be lead singer for the Stones. But in a concert film that runs just shy of two hours, a few down spots are expected and forgivable. Besides, hearing the Dirty Dozen Brass Band rip it up with “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now,” or seeing “Wolfman” Washington play guitar with his teeth? Can’t beat that.“Make It Funky” is subtitled “…It All Began In New Orleans.” That’s a bold statement to make, especially right off the bat, but the film isn’t really about proving the exact roots of American music. It’s more like a brash statement made by an excited fan, as if in answer to all those other recent concert films that celebrated Philadelphia, Memphis, Detroit. And, unintentionally and coincidentally, the film’s video release date makes that statement all the more powerful, a defiant stand against the devastation, as if to say the city will never die, because you hear all that music around you? It all started here.
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originally posted: 09/20/05 14:45:21