May 20, 2005

Make It Funky! (?)

A Review

As I mentioned earlier, I went to an advance screening of the film documentary, Make It Funky!, here in Lafayette back on April 26. This was sponsored by the Recording Academy (NARAS, you know, the Grammy award people), which also hosted several showings of the film in New Orleans later in the week. Following the film, the director, Michael Murphy, took questions from the audience, including one from your intrepid (or is that insipid?) reporter. Stick with me, and I’ll get to that “(?)”.

Around two hours in length, the film still felt short to me, as it covered a lot of musical and cultural ground, seeking to reveal the essence of what makes New Orleans music unique and valuable. It intersperses pithy interview segments with local notables (Cosimo Matassa, Allen Toussaint, Earl Palmer, to name a few) and non-locals (Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and Ahmet Ertegun, for example), with archival footage and live performances filmed last year at a six hour concert at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans. To his great credit, Murphy has edited a massive amount of material down to a film with a running time suitable for theatrical release and yet still interesting and coherent. Of course, in doing so, much of the story and music is left in the cutting room. And yet, his feature should give those who know precious little about New Orleans music a palatable dose of education mixed with good entertainment. Murphy promises a later DVD release that will include at least some of what he had to leave out, even hinting that he might present the many hours of interviews he conducted in book form at some point.

In an inspired choice, Murphy enlisted Art Neville of the original Meters and currently of the Funky Meters and Neville Brothers bands, whose performing and recording career goes back to the 1950’s, to narrate the film. It’s an enlightening pleasure to hear about the music of New Orleans from Art and some of the other people who made it happen.

While the concert performances are all very good in quality and sound, my problem with the film is in these segments. Most of the performers are backed by a stage band, which I assumed would be all New Orleans players, as well they should be, seeing as the focus of the film is what makes that special hometown vibe happen. As the concert footage started, I couldn’t identify the drummer on stage. When Earl Palmer, an absolute HOTG drum saint, sat in on drums for a song, the other drummer stayed on stage playing, too. Then I realized who he was, Steve Jordan (also an interviewee), a great drummer, mind you, but definitely NOT a certified New Orleans player. He wasn’t just sitting in; he was playing on most of the performances. Even though a couple of other local drummers were allowed to play on a certain songs, such as Willie Green’s performance with the Neville Brothers (the band he has been in for over 20 years), I had a disconnect with the film at that point.

Certainly, the average (non-geek) viewer would not have my reaction, or even realize what was going on But I found this non-sequitur odd and disingenuous to the spirit and thesis of the film. So, afterwards, when the applause was over and Mr. Murphy got up to take questions, I just had to inquire, “I was wondering why Steve Jordan was used as the drummer for most of the concert. As you well know, New Orleans is a town FULL of excellent drummers. Jordan is a great drummer, too; but why use an outsider for this film?”

Murphy’s seemed somewhat uncomfortable as he said that I had asked a good question, and then proceeded to explain that it was a “show business” decision. To get a distributor interested in the project, he said he had to have some “names” associated with the film. The outstanding New Orleans names wouldn’t do; so, he got Bonnie Raitt and Keith Richards in to talk and perform. When negotiating to get Richards on the project, Murphy was told by Keith’s “people” than Keith wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it unless Jordan participated. Thus, in order for the world to see a film purporting to represent was is good, true and funky about New Orleans music, the director had to chose not to use actual local drumming talent for much of the live music. The irony gushes from that concept.

As my friend and occasional blog contributor, Dwight Richards, said with just a smidge of exaggeration, when I told him this tale, “Man, you can throw a rock anywhere around here and hit a great drummer.” Yes, Dwight, they could have used a different hometown cat drumming on every song and not gone through them all. Those drummers literally make it funky. But that’s not what you’ll find in the concert footage of Make It Funky!, the movie . And that, my friends, is showbiz.

Am I being too much of a purist? Maybe. But I still don’t think this well-made documentary delivers completely on its promise. Others haven’t seemed to mind. Jan Ramsey, of OffBeat Magazine, referred to this film as having the potential to do for New Orleans music and musicians what The Buena Vista Social Club did for those of Havana. Wonderful thought, Jan. Glad you brought that up, because the only semi-well-known (non-local) “names” performing in that project were Ry Cooder, who instigated it, and his son, as I recall. And it seemed to work out famously, showcasing the actual musicians it set out to praise. While not a fatal flaw by any means, Murphy's taking some of the downhome funk out of Make It Funky!, just so Keith Richards could do a tune with the band and talk a bit about what New Orleans music means to him, is not really a fair trade off, since it compromises credibility and shows some disregard, even disrespect, for the local drumming community, sorry to say. At least, that’s the way it comes off to me.

With that caveat emptor, I urge you to go see Make It Funky! when it comes out this fall. Support and learn more about New Orleans music. When all is said and done, this film is still a touching, informative, enjoyable tribute to the Home of the Groove, despite the devil in the details.


[Update 06/03/2005: I have recently been furnished with a list of all the New Orleans drummers who participated on and/or performed in Make It Funky! and the related concert. In fairness to them and Michael Murphy, the director, I wanted to show you the list (with my notes), since I did not have this information earlier:

Herman LeBeauf (works with Allen Toussaint)
Eddie Christmas (Big Sam’s Funky Nation– and a fave of mine lately)
“Mean” Willie Green (of the Neville Brothers, as I noted in the post)
Shannon Powell (a great addition to any group)
Herman Ernest (Dr. John’s band and many sessions)
Russell Batiste (of da Funky Meters and Orkestra from da Hood)
Bob French (many sessions in the '60’s–and still working, as far as I know!)
Earl Palmer

I have learned that, due to his poor health, Mr. Palmer requested that Steve Jordan also play drums when he sat in during the filmed concert last year.

Now, I still stand by my stated personal (purist geek) opinion about the use of Mr. Jordan on this project. But, in the bigger picture, it’s a minor quibble and has nothing to do with either Jordan’s spirited playing, or the fine work the director has done to bring myriad elements together into an impressive whole and to get the project into theatres. It’s an inspiring film; and I look forward to seeing it again when it is released. Hope you will support it, too.]

13 Comments:

Blogger Zeke's, the Montreal Art Gallery said...

Howdy!

I have a similar problem with most films about music and/or musicians, expecially The Buena Vista Social Club. It doesn't have to do with the choice of musicians, but with how the music is presented.

They never play a song in its entirety. Mr. Wenders at one point during the film decided that the honking of a freakin' taxi was a better choice of something to hear than a song!

Ever since readig this review of Amadeus by Robert Craft, where he trashed the movie because they faded the music out in the middle of phrases, I've always kept an ear on music documentaries. If they play a complete song I'm amazed.

The reason I get my knickers in a knot over this, is if the subject is suppossed to be the music, then respect it enough to play entire songs. If the music isn't important, then why make the film?

10:34 AM, May 21, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

F*ck Keith Richards, and f*ck the Rolling Stones too. They should have quit long ago

9:15 PM, May 21, 2005  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Well, Chris, that's another showbiz thing, isn't it? Making the film a tease to get you to buy the CD and/or DVD. You have a good point. 'Make It Funky!' has complete songs - at least a few. Quite frankly, I got so distracted by the Steve Jordan issue that my attention was diverted from other matters. But,as I recall, the concert footage gives healthy doses of music. I need to see it again; but I stand by my statement that the live stuff is good, even though the main drummer is an import.

10:59 PM, May 22, 2005  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

Dan
You are right on the money with your criticisms. As you said it's especially ludicrous that they'd decide to fill the drummers chair with an outsider.
I also wonder whey they couldn't find anyone "closer" to NOLA than Bonnie Raitt and Keith Richards? It seems like the same middle of the road "AAA" radio format vibe that ruined the John Lee Hooker documentary.
Larry

10:48 AM, May 23, 2005  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Yeah, Larry, I hear you. Bonnie Raitt I can almost understand, as she recorded several Toussaint songs (in the early 70's!); and her bass player is from New Orleans; and her most recent keyboard man, Jon Cleary, has been based in NOLA for most of his life, although he is British by birth. Bonnie's duet with Toussaint on "What Is Success" in the film is nicely done. But,as you say, Keith Richards is not "close" to New Orleans, other than using Ivan Neville in his band when he does solo stuff. By the way, his performance is nothing special, either. Hell, a better MOR choice would even have been Harry Connick, Jr, who took lessons from James Booker, at least, and is a famous hometowner. I can think of others, but what's the use? The film is in the can and the director and distributors are going to have to live with their showbiz decision. Hope local drummers don't picket the movie!

12:06 PM, May 23, 2005  
Blogger Manolo said...

Hi, first of all congrat.! for you blog its really good!.
I totally understand the commercial point of this kind of movies. But theres a movie which choose perfectly the music and the musicians. That is Calle 54. If you have the opportunity to check it out u´ll have fun. Its latin stuff, but this is one the movies with no commercial interest at all, just music.
BTW, its cool from spain to read stuff about the "music city". I was twice at the jazzfest and i want to get back asap!
Cheers

3:51 AM, May 24, 2005  
Anonymous spyboyroy said...

Dan: I think people like you.me, Grogan et.al get outraged when the disparity you described is passed off as in "Nobody will notice."If Keith Richards agreed to participate in this tribute wouldn't you think it's BECAUSE he would finally get to play with a great NOLA drummer of his choice? Murphy should have made it non-negotiable, and if the answer was no,moved on to someone else chafing at the bit TO DO IT.You did good Kimo-Sabe.

5:58 PM, May 24, 2005  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks for the back-up, SpyBoy and all.

And thanks, Manolo, for your comments from Spain. I'll look for that film you speak of. Hope you get back to New Orleans soon.

12:31 AM, May 25, 2005  
Blogger The Reaper said...

Thanks for the revisions Dan. Didn't Eddie Christmas play some shows with the Black Crowes recently?

12:12 AM, June 08, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Make it Funky's whole purpose is to expose to "outsiders" what the
music of New Orleans is all about..
it also seeks to show how this wonderful music has influenced people from all over the world. I don't think Mr. Murphy set out to film a project with only locals participating in it. If any of you knew the sacrifices he's made to make this documentary, and the numerous swell headed local musicians who were too busy, or too expensive to participate, maybe you'd just sit back & enjoy what he's accomplished.

12:50 PM, June 18, 2005  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Well, Anonymous, I certainly understand the wide-ranging influence of New Orlanes music; and I did enjoy the film. I also pointed out in my piece and the update that my point of view is FAR from that of the people who Murphy hopes to reach with his film. Nobody but me and a few other music geeks would notice that Steve Jorndan is in the film. But HOTG is a blog for music geeks!! Where else but here to point out such things? I'm not writing in the mainstream press,
for Zigaboo's sake!

Further, I have subsequently learned more of what it took this man to get his film completed; and I am in awe of his dedication to the project - which I think turned out incredibly well under the circumstances. But nothing is perfect, either.

I still feel the music of New Orleans, which has been influential in its various forms for nearly a century, now (if not more), can and should stand on its own. It's a sad comment on cultural ignorance that, as Mr. Murphy indicated to me in his answer to my question, the reson he used "outside names" in his film was that he was told it was necessary to get commercial distributors interested in the film. Fine - if that's what it took to get the film out there; but the irony creeps in that in doing so he had to employ a non-local drummer for some of the musical segments, in a town replete with funky drummers.

But the real world is one of compromises and negotiation. We should all be grateful that he got this film made at all, as all should agree when they take that anonymous advice and sit back and enjoy it. PS -- I hope the director will give some of the back story of this project on the DVD release. Maybe we all can understand his challenges and his success better, then.
Peace

2:41 PM, June 18, 2005  
Blogger neal said...

I was at the concert and Keith was the low point. seemed out of it and had "you're so lucky I'm here" air about him. He added little to show and now that we know he was reason we had out of area drummer instead of local studs. Bonnie has alot of big easy cred. She has taken and given to the scene and was there in audience watching when she wasn't on stage. Show was great and I look forward to the movie.

12:40 PM, June 25, 2005  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, Neal, for that view from the concert audience. Keith seemed out of it? Go figure. Maybe he should just hire Johnny Depp to impersonate him all of the time!

3:15 PM, June 26, 2005  

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