As a collection of talented street performers, Judge Bill Gibron really enjoyed this documentary. As a look at a vibrant pre-Katrina New Orleans, he found it equally devastating.
A cinematic discovery of street music
On the grand scale of artistry, most people downplay street musicians as novel novices. They figure—incorrectly, of course—that individuals who have to work the curb for a concert are obviously not good enough to make it in the legitimate limelight. Since they are typically surrounded by other eccentric entities, performers who push the limits of suitable talent for a possible cash handout, these gifted players get grouped together and roundly dismissed. The truth, however, is far more complicated than a lack of talent or tenacity. As the new documentary by Mark Johnson and Jonathan Walls entitled Playing for Change shows, there is an amazing level of skill—and more importantly, soul—in the dreamers who take to the nation's metropolitan streets, parks, and common areas in search of an audience. Though they may not look like the pop culture icons who fill TV screens with their MTV-ready personas, these far more open musicians want to make a direct connection with the masses—and if a little spare change or a CD sale can result, all the better.
As much a travelogue of famous U.S. cities as it is a look at different street-level players, Change is an interesting experience. We begin on the left coast, move to the middle with a stop over at a pre-Katrina New Orleans, and wrap up in the city that never sleeps, the Big Bad Apple itself, New York. Along the way, Johnson and Walls attempt an inventive conceit. As they meet up with and talk to various street musicians, they will pick out one or two of their favorites to record a basic 16-bar stomp. Once they have finished the film, they will combine the pieces to create a cross-country collaboration entitled "Playing for Change Blues." It's inspiring how all the players involved literally jump at the chance to add their part. The final product is a true unforced labor of love. Yet this is just a footnote to the real meat of the presentation—band interviews and performance clips. Beginning with the delicate song styling of Lily Holbrook (so fierce and yet fragile in her acoustic guitar/vocal presentation), we suddenly find ourselves amid the Hispanic hurricane known as Los Pinguos (The Penguins). Like a more joyful Gipsy Kings, this quintet uses Latin rhythms and a wry sense of humor to leave their overflowing crowds desperate to dance.
After an inspirational chat with a deaf trumpet player (who roller skates around Venice Beach blasting away in a celebration of life), we meet up with Chantz Powell. As his mother introduces him, hyping up his child prodigy particulars, we are wary of such ballyhoo. Once we see this amazing young man sing, tap, and jazz his way through a set of stellar standards, he more than lives up to the brash buildup. Then we learn the link between our hearing-impaired performer and young Master Powell. Seems a chance meeting between the two inspired Chantz to pick up his horn and take to the street. Skipping the middle part of the movie for the moment, we end up in Manhattan and what is often considered the birthplace of the street performer, the New York City subway system. There we are introduced to an odd combination of rhythm aces (Universal Truth), typical singers/players, and Simon Seven, whose act includes playing the didgeridoo over what sounds like modern electonica. Once we make it above ground, the selection is rather routine. Inspiration offers durable doo-wop, a genre whose novelty wore out the minute PBS turned it into a pledge drive staple, while Black and White (consisting of violinist Michael Shulman and guitarist) is all hot bow bravado. Perhaps the sole semblance of what people would call "old school" street performing is Bradford Reed. With an electronic string invention called "the pencilina," he makes weird avant-garde sounds without a care for trends or tunefulness. If that were it, Playing for Change would be a decent documentary. It's the second act stop off in New Orleans, though, that turns it transcendent.
First impressions are key, and one look at a pre-flood Crescent City simply breaks your heart. The vibrance, the life flowing through the streets is just incredible. Then you add in the evocative groups with names like Willow, The Goat Dirt Road Band, and the Jackson Square Jazz Band and New Orleans has an exuberant heartbeat all its own. The performers know it and articulate their love of the locale in words that make you instantly sad for the city's current state. Anyone not in favor of rebuilding this birthplace to American artistic importance is simply narrow-minded and uncaring. In interview segments, the people who are part of the New Orleans street scene make the plea for their place in the canon of continuing creativity. They are feeding the need, providing art with new avenues of expression from which it can live and grow. Even someone as seemingly unimportant as blind singer Robert Bradley argues for it with his adlibbed songwriting style. By crooning the first thing that comes into his mind, the purity of his ideas is preserved and the spontaneity of his skill is heightened. Indeed, almost every performer in Playing for Change states that it's the freedom to express one's self and the immediate connection to the crowds that solidifies their desire to make the street their beat. It's definitely something that can't be achieved on a stadium stage or across a TV screen.
Offered in a sparkling 1.33:1 full-screen image, the transfer of Playing for Change is terrific. The colors literally leap off the lens and the wealth of details is delightful. Unlike other shot on digital documentaries, Mark Johnson and Jonathan Walls don't try to go for the faux filmed look. Instead, they keep the picture real and immediate, making for a wonderfully atmospheric visual style. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is so incredible, so crystal clear, that we initially fail to believe in the pre-credits caveat that all performances were caught "live," as they happened. Maybe it's because the musicianship is so good. Perhaps it's because Johnson and Walls took careful consideration in capturing the sounds. It could just be a matter of karmic happenstance. Whatever the case, the aural elements here are just stupendous. As for extras, we get a collection of trailers, a photo gallery, and a nice nine-minute overview of the New Orleans segment. With more footage from the area and Robert Bradley's beautiful song about the city accompanying, this is a wonderful tribute to a region still trying to crawl out of a devastating natural disaster.
So the next time you're walking down a major metropolitan street and you hear the faintest echo of a trumpet or saxophone off in the distance, perhaps you'll think twice about dismissing it as the typical din of the city. As Playing for Change shows very clearly, these artists aren't just adding to the ambiance of where they live. They are desperate to bond with their benefactors. But it takes two to forge such a link. Hopefully this movie will help you meet them halfway.
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