COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 4: Michael Murphy

In early March, things seemed to be going along swimmingly for director Michael Murphy’s “Up From The Streets: New Orleans, City of Music.” The documentary about New Orleans culture through the lens of the city’s music is Murphy’s second feature-length ode to his hometown. (His first was 2005’s aptly titled “Make It Funky.”)

“Up From The Streets” (trailer here) was selected as the featured film of the DC Independent Film Festival’s opening night gala on March 4. New Orleans clarinetist Michael White traveled with his band to perform before the screening at the historic Lincoln Theatre. As at other premieres, the film was well received. Yet even then, the COVID-19 crisis was taking hold fast. Movie theaters were closing. Everything was closing. Murphy headed back to New Orleans.

Maybe he was cursed. “Make It Funky” had been scheduled for release in 2005, just as Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and the floods resulting from levee failures devastated the city. Back then, Murphy had worked with Microsoft to turn his film into a fundraiser for the city.

This time around, in connection with his distributor, London-based Eagle Rock Entertainment, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, Murphy’s new film, “Up From The Streets,” is available through June 30 as a “virtual cinema release.” This means you can purchase a ticket online here, scroll through a national list of theaters and pick one; then stream the film and, in the process, help send a stream of funds to both the independent cinema of your choice and the New Orleans cultural community. (The order will be good for 7 days, and the viewer will have 72 hours to finish the film once they have started watching it.)

“Up From The Streets” spans the life of the city, and the breadth of its music. Naturally, it features lots of footage—some archival, some recent—of New Orleans musicians making great music. The voices that comment on the culture range from local heroes, such as drummer Herlin Riley and trumpeter Leroy Jones, to the many stars from afar who’ve been drawn to the city, like Robert Plant and Bonnie Raitt. Yet there aren’t many talking heads here; instead, we get dropped into conversations about New Orleans music—why we love it, what it means, how it feels. And that’s what New Orleans is like if you hang around long enough—a conversation among friends that never ends, about culture and life, and life and culture.

Murphy spoke with me over the phone from the home in New Orleans where he has been holed since his film’s Washington, DC premiere. We talked about his good fortune to be from the Crescent City, his bad luck regarding film releases, and what can be learned from both things.

Is it true? Are your films cursed?

Well, it is really strange. I’ve gotten phone calls and emails and texts from my New Orleans friends, and they’ve all said, “We love your films and they’re so passionate about our city, but, please, the city can’t take another one of your films because a disaster always hits. You’d better retire.

Yes, but now you get to do good in a time of crisis, right?

We had an initial run with some festivals. The film was getting noticed. People liked it, and then the virus hit. The distributor called and said, “We’re thinking of doing a virtual cinema release with the film; if you like the idea, is there any nonprofit that’s giving grants to musicians in the city? I’ve had a long association with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, so I contacted them, and they are the recipients. Not only does it help the independent theaters around the country, but it sends money to New Orleans musicians.

I know you as a filmmaker. Are you also a musician?

No, I didn’t have that talent. But if you’re born and raised here, you grow up around music. My mother was raised in Cuba, so we always had Cuban musicians playing in our house on the weekends. There was always this music going on in our home that was from Cuba and when I would step outside, because we lived fairly close to the river, there would be a lot of vendors that would come up Broadway. I’d sit on the porch and hear the fruit vendor or others, singing about whatever they had. So that singing was in the air. I have four brothers and all of us have this passion for music.

In that post-Katrina period, after making a film about New Orleans culture, were you worried that what you had documented would no longer be?

Yes, somewhat. Katrina brought us to our knees. 80% of the city was flooded. It was total devastation. I remember CNN and ABC wanted to interview me because of the film just coming out. And I lost my composure a number of times. Too many memories, too many friends who died. The city was destroyed. It was rough. But I had other friends who helped bring the city back.

But I knew it wouldn’t be gone. I was worried whether the city would come back and retain its culture, retain its soul or would the city be bulldozed? And then you would lose the fabric of the city—the architecture, the corner restaurants, the bands.

I needed a way to cope with the fact that the film was pulled, too. I thought it was a good film, and people liked it. I was going to see if I could get a grant to document the destruction. Early in my career, I decided I would start a video/audio archive. I kept all the tapes. All the performance videos were in a vault in Los Angeles. I wanted to go out and film the destruction, to capture it for posterity’s sake. My older brother is a still photographer. I got a grant, and I split the money with him. We shot video and still photographs in the Lower Ninth. One day, we were out there filming and I saw this African American couple. Their home was destroyed. They were on their hands and knees, crawling on the rubble of what was once their home. And they made this noise of excitement and happiness while we were there. And what it was, the wife had been going through the rubble desperately trying to find her grandmother’s wedding ring. And sure enough, she pulled it out of the rubble. And it was a moment that brought tears to our eyes.

What did you do with the footage from that period?

I just put it all in the archive. And we did create a couple of videos for the company that gave me the grant. But other than that, it’s stuck away.

When the COVID crisis hit, did that call up some very scary ghosts of 2005?

Yes and no. The difference would be that New Orleans was so utterly destroyed physically then, and it was this city that had suffered. This virus, it’s a worldwide pandemic.

So now I’m trying to reflect on new the film in that context. Somebody recently wrote a review. He said that, for him, what my film represents is how in New Orleans you have this sense of community, this family structure, the supportive network. And right now, that is something that America really needs. Across the country, you have families and everyday citizens helping each other watching out for each other, raising money. It’s a different sort of tragedy but it still makes you reflect on the small things in life —friendships, family.

 Why make another film about New Orleans music?

There was a bigger story to tell. “Up From The Streets” started for me in 2015. I had left working for Microsoft, and I had wanted to get back to doing another film. I realized that 2018 was the 300thanniversary of the city. I thought, Let’s try to do something on the 300 years of the culture of New Orleans through the lens of music. It was a difficult film to make. I wanted to cover so much, not only about the music but also the social justice aspect. I’ve sat down with so many New Orleans musicians, and they’ve all talked about their struggles and about how their music became a vehicle to address wanting freedom and social justice. From early on, I wanted to build that into the film.

In the years since Katrina, do you think we’ve all realized more clearly how important that connection is?

That’s a very interesting question, and tough to answer. I think of it a little differently. The need for social justice and for racial equality to be dealt with head-on is extremely important to this city and has been a driving force for a lot of New Orleans musicians. Becoming a musician gave them an ability to have a roof over their heads and to put food on the table. African Americans have had very limited opportunities in this city. So many families—Barbarins, Lasties, Marsalises, Brunoiuses, Nevilles—all these families kept their legacies going as a way of keeping their families going, which in turn kept the community going. In this particular film, being Southern, I wanted to address the fact that I also I see a lot of things going on in the country now where racism is still not being dealt with everywhere. In the film, not only did I want to approach those issues form the point of view of Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson and Terence Blanchard and these other incredible artists, but I wanted to make it clear that these are America’s problems.

I remember the very first time I interviewed Ellis Marsalis. We sat on his porch and he explained to me that, “In other cities, culture comes from the top down. In New Orleans, it’s the reverse: it springs from the street up.” You got that title from Ellis, right?

Yes. I knew Ellis well and did interviews with him. His phrasing of how the music bubbles up from the street has stayed with me because if you live here you know that—you witness it, you feel it. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and most of the musicians that I’ve talked to recognize that they started to want to become musicians and learn to be musicians by watching second line parades, by participating in second lines, by having a mentor show them how to blow a horn. It’s part of the culture of the city.

In making this movie, were there any revelations for you?

The biggest issue was I that I needed to get to the end of the film. It’s basically an overview. I opted for breadth instead of depth. You can’t tell the story of 300 years in 104 minutes unless you have a roadmap. If people are interested, they can investigate further.

Toward the end of the film, I learned a lesson. I knew that bounce music was huge internationally, and that the New Orleans rap and hiphop scene was influential. But I did not know the connection there. It was when I did interviews with Big Freedia and PJ Morton and Raj Smooth and Mannie Fresh—those folks, when I asked them the questions, they said: “Hey, this music comes from Congo Square. It’s Mardi Gras Indians. It’s call-and-response. This is the New Orleans story continuing. The legacy goes way back.” They told me, “Michael, you have to understand the influences go back to second lines, to Allen Toussaint, to the Nevilles and the Meters.” I hadn’t fully understood that. For me, it was eye-opening because the story does continue.

I love the scene where Terence Blanchard, Ben Jaffe and Herlin Riley are talking about their trips to Cuba. Given your background, that must have been deep…

That particular segment meant a whole lot to me. My mother, in her last week of life, wanted to tell me something. She asked me to lean over her bed and whispered in my ear: Please go to Havana. So I did. And I could not leave that connection, which is very important to New Orleans, out of the film.

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard is a central figure for your film. He’s our guide. What is it about Terence that led you to cast him this way?

I think I had filmed a couple of his performances at jazzfest. He was just someone on my list as an important musician to interview. When I finally interviewed him, his presence on camera really struck me, and in a different way than when he performs onstage. It was direct. He was telling the story I wanted to tell. It wasn’t until later when I was had rolled my sleeves up and was into production that I said, “You know, Terence would be a great host for this.”

Who is Terence as a character to your viewers?

New Orleans. The film is about New Orleans. And he represents New Orleans. The city runs deep in Terence. You can take him to New York or anywhere in the world, and he will let you know he is from New Orleans. He represents that to the world.

Right now, due to the COVID crisis, what your film depicts is unattainable, right?

Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.

I was talking to Troy Andrews [Trombone Shorty]. Troy and I go way back when he was seven years old. I met Troy when he was playing on the streets. Troy and I were talking about how right now it’s similar to Katrina because there’s no clubs open, no gigs happening. Occasionally, you find someone playing on a street corner, but they have to be careful because you can’t have too many people around right now. And that’s a shame. We hope it can come back. Musicians are trying to make ends meet by playing in living rooms or driveways and streaming it, and hoping that people watch and contribute. It’s a very, very difficult time. But I will say that, just like after Katrina, the community is gathering to support musicians. We all realize that we need musicians back, we need music clubs back. The help and the support will be there. Will things change? I think we will lose some clubs and some restaurants. But the culture is strong.

Is there one moment or conversation in your film that remains with you most of all?

When Terence talks about the taking down of the Civil War statues—that still brings tears to my eyes when I watch it. The other one: I’m glad I put in there was the Katrina segment.

I tried to create a film that felt like New Orleans, that talked like New Orleans, that represented the culture of New Orleans. With that, I wanted to bring in the both joys in life and the disappointments in life, to laugh a little and to cry a little. So far, in film festivals, the audiences have reacted to certain moments the same way I react. And since I’m from New Orleans, that means they get it. It makes me proud that the struggle of making this film has been worth it.

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