The last time there were as many trombones in a movie as there are in “Take Me to the River: New Orleans,” Harold Hill was probably leading a parade. The ongoing vitalization of the Crescent City’s music culture really is like something out of a horn salesman’s fever dream, with younger generations readily taking up New Orleans’ traditional second-line culture in a way that can only make the aging elders of other regional music scenes green with envy. It’s this intergenerational mix, as well as the city’s world-famous melting pot of styles, that director Martin Shore means to celebrate in his latest documentary, the bulk of which consists of recording sessions he’s set up that foster collaborations between the old guard and new. The spirited end result suggests that New Orleans might be the one major city in America with no musical generation gap to speak of.
In “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” (which opened in its title city last week and moves into New York and L.A. this weekend), the performances start with ’60s hitmaker Irma Thomas bonding in a duet with Ledisi, the 21st-century Grammys favorite. From there, we get the late Dr. John with relative youngster Davell Crawford, and Cyril Neville with Dumpstaphunk, among other examples. Soul legend William Bell is joined by Snoop Dogg and G-Eazy on a climactic cover of the Allen Toussaint-penned hit “Yes We Can Can,” representing probably the only time Snoop will ever be the featured artist on a track that hinges on the repeated use of the word “darn.” (It’s not clear why Snoop, a Cali kind of guy, is in the movie, but he’s credited as an executive producer, so maybe doing God’s work on a project like this has its privileges.) One session has brass greats Donald Harrison and Christian Scott hooking up with the “Tipitina’s Interns,” experiencing an internship that is about 10,000% funkier than any apprenticeship previously known.
What the filmmaker also provides, between live recordings, is an overview of New Orleans music’s past and present that covers surprising historical ground for a running time clocking in under two hours. Most of the topics are touched on so fleetingly that you might wish Ken Burns would do a miniseries that’d allow every topic or style coming up for quick discussion to get its own hour-long episode. When it’s mentioned that traditional music was well on its way out of New Orleans in the 1950s, before a revival of interest that turned into a tidal wave, you might wonder why that was. There is no time to find out, as the movie skips ahead to touching on other fascinating subjects, like the Mardi Gras Indians and their mix of colorful, fancy dress and battle-ready fierceness. (“There’s a warrior culture, but for the most part, it’s about being pretty,” says one participant.) One subject that does get a bit more screen time, to briefly sad effect, is Hurricane Katrina, which dispersed many musicians who once were tight-knit neighbors to other cities and states, some never to return.
But it’s easy to forgive how quickly Shore moves on from the historical burning questions he raises or the thematic rabbit holes he so quickly explores, since the performance footage is really the movie’s main reason for being. The interstitial history and context? That’s really gravy on top of the gumbo, as it were.
“Take Me to the River: New Orleans” devotes enough screen time to those musical sequences, in fact, that it almost falls into the “concert film” genre, even though none of it was shot at a gig. What transpired at the studio performances Shore captured does arguably add up to a last waltz, of sorts, given the inevitable changing of guards. Four who appear have died since the performances were filmed — Art and Charles Neville in 2018, Dr. John in 2019 and hip-hop artist 5th Ward Weebie in 2020 — so time was not a-wasting when it came to getting a cross-section of generations on film. (If only he’d started filming in time to get Toussaint, who died in 2015 and is much-discussed toward the end of the film.) The doc includes one of Dr. John’s last performances, and a certifiably final one for the Neville Brothers as a group, as they’d called it quits as an act in 2015 but reunited briefly to film a reunion that brought in their children and grandkids. It’d be easier to feel sorrowful about these losses if the screen weren’t filling up with so much joy — an exuberance that also makes you forget just how un-pretty the recording studios initially appear.
The movie doesn’t always trust that an audience will relax into these studio sessions. Initially, especially, there’s an overabundance of cutting, as if a summit between Irma Thomas and Ledisi needed to be edited like a screwball comedy. On more than one occasion, there is the irritation of having songs interrupted so we can hear some voiceover about the importance of carrying on musical heritage, like anyone who’d sit down to watch this needs the homily. But eventually the film finds its own rhythm. A movie that includes this disproportionate an amount of the world’s leading experts in syncopation would be hard-pressed not to.