A spicy gumbo of incredible music…constantly interrupted by chattering.
New Orleans, like its home state of Louisiana, is a melting pot of blistering sounds and even hotter food fare. From the clash of cultures and cuisines to music that's as spicy as the Shrimp Creole in the French quarter, there's an aura to NOLA that just can't be imitated or repeated. From its historical roots in the foundations of jazz and ragtime to mastering the modern folk music of Creole and zydeco, the sonic spectrum of the definitive Louisiana "sound" is as varied and vast as the horizon that meets the bayou. Legends like the Neville Brothers and founding fathers of Acadian craft such as Gatemouth Brown and Clifton Chenier can all be found playing and partying together in the 2003 documentary Dancing to New Orleans, a film that takes us on an in-depth trip through the archeology and anthropology of what makes Louisiana swing and sway. From Shreveport to Ferriday and all points in between, along the backwater burgs and the big city haunts, the myth of the Big Easy and its non-stop Mardi Gras and music mentality is examined and explained in this exhaustive overview. With several concert sequences and a nice selection of insightful interviews with the artists themselves, Dancing to New Orleans is like a one-stop history lesson into the very structure and backbone of Louisiana itself. Too bad it features more blah, blah, blah than sis boom bah.
Filmmakers who want a lesson in how not to handle a music-based documentary film need look no further than Dancing to New Orleans. During the course of its 89 minutes we witness melody and recital ruined, forced to play second fiddle to pointless geo-political encyclopedic mini-fact narratives and evocative, if endless, travelogue photos. Yes, the economy and ethnic make-up of Louisiana is an important factor here, not only in the construction of the area's folklore and song styling (this movie's main focus) but in why there seems to be such a wealth of talent so centrally located. But to interrupt rip-roaring blues numbers to have blank faced PhD's discuss the chronological significance of the dirty boogie, or fade out of a zydeco rave-up to listen to critics proclaim its genius does both the performer and the performance a disservice. The main purpose of the film, supposedly, is to showcase artists in their element, to celebrate and marvel at the level of skill, grace, and overall God-given talent at work in the bodies of these mere mortals. So it seems patently unfair to Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown to interrupt his onstage tour de force with interview snippets and voice over descriptions. While C.J. Chenier is working the audience into an accordion and washboard frenzy, it's not proper for the filmmakers to simply fade-out and add self-important discussions of slavery, the African American experience, and his dead father's lasting legacy. Like a headliner blown away by the opening act, Dancing to New Orleans believes that its oral anthologizing of the region is far more important than the beautiful noise almost always being forced to play in the background.
This moviemaking miscalculation renders Dancing to New Orleans impotent as a statement of song or as an informational retrospective. Your brain is constantly battling the broadcast as you try to decipher fact from fantastic playing and singing. It has one questioning the maker's purpose behind the movie. Was this meant to be a concert style experience peppered with in-depth analysis and fun factoids, or was this always an inclusive overview of the locale and its legacy with a really groovy soundtrack? Either way, Dancing to New Orleans fails and frustrates, leaving you wanting more and occasionally needing a lot less. Still, it's nice to see people like Buckwheat Zydeco and the previously mentioned Mr. Brown get a few fleeting moments of screen time to explain the importance of music in their life and the influence Louisiana had on their philosophy and craft. But it would have been nice to see them in full amphitheater mode, working an audience into a simple sweat with the strumming of strings or soulful squashing of the squeezebox. There is a little of that here, and when we are given a chance to simply sit back and listen, we are treated to a poignant and memorable experience. But performance is all about timing and control. A musician is usually rated on how well he keeps the audience's attention and if he moves them beyond the realm of their seats and into a stratosphere of harmony. It's impossible for that to happen here because the information patrol keeps breaking down the wall between instrumentalist and spectator, taking us out of the moment and into some Cajun Chamber of Commerce PR piece. What should have been an insightful foot stomping celebration feels like a bad lecture at the local Louisiana Rotary Club. Dancing to New Orleans wants to be a definitive statement about the bayou and its inherent bop, but it's nothing more than a visual term paper with sparse musical footnotes.
Docurama does its usual dependable job at bringing this decidedly divisive creation to DVD. Dancing to New Orleans uses many film and video stocks, everything from vintage clips to recently recorded high definition digital. The fact that the full screen image is crisp, clear, and blemish free speaks highly of the care taken to transfer it to the digital medium. There are some stunning shots in this movie, scenes of the swamps at twilight and acres of unspoiled land. Since this is supposed to be a movie about music, the Dolby Digital 5.1 should really be exceptional…and it is. There is awesome separation and a real "band" feel to the mix. The intrusive narration does spoil some of the sonic specialness, but as long as a groove is kicking, it's going to sound great here. As for extras, we get a series of onscreen essays covering some of the musicians featured in the film, as well as similar snippets about the artists whose painting and sculptures were featured. There is also a list of resources to Louisiana culture and music and a biography of the filmmakers. Along with the usual trailers for other Docurama titles, this is a decent little DVD package. It's not great: we aren't treated to a commentary or a series of concert footage outtakes. Basically, what aired on Bravo earlier in 2003 is jazzed up with a small amount of contextual material and thrown out onto the video market. That would be wonderful if this was 90 minutes of straight jazz/country/soul/Cajun/Creole/zydeco music. But with the constant interruptions, asides, and fadeouts, we get only part of the picture here. Dancing to New Orleans tells only a section of Louisiana's sonic past and present. Too bad it's almost always the talkative aspects.
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