On a whim and a lazy day in Houston, I traveled into the suburbs to check out a documentary on New Orleans, my former (and favorite) city, perhaps the most interesting in the country. The film was on music, making things a double pleasure, and I could only assume that the Big Easy’s Black Catholic legacy would be featured then all the more.
I was not disappointed.
“Take Me to the River: New Orleans”, released this spring on a limited basis, explores the roots of New Orleans song by way of its living musicians—and others—exploring their craft in collaborations across genres, generations, and ethnic groups.
Make no mistake, the bulk of the main cast is African American, with the exceptions of guitarist Eric Krasno, the late New Orleans mainstay Dr. John, local jam band Galactic, NOLA transplant Ani DiFranco, Acadiana’s Lost Bayou Ramblers, and the Oakland-born rapper G-Eazy.
It’s anyone’s guess why the artists like the latter were chosen for the film, alongside Southern California’s finest in Snoop Dogg, but it would appear the point was to not limit the scope to New Orleans artists, but rather the city’s unique sound.
And that it did, including a delightful reunion of the Neville Brothers (Aaron, Cyril, Charles, and Art), their first musical gathering in years—and one of the last, as Art and Charles both died shortly after filming. The spontaneity of their reunion was a treat to behold, as Art’s son Ian Neville (of Dumpstaphunk fame) helped make a few phone calls to get the family in the booth to jam and reminisce.
The Neville family were also some of numerous Catholics to grace the screen, a topic only hinted at during the film, during its overview of jazz funerals, “Second Line” parades, and Mardi Gras. Even so, Ledisi—whose vocal collaboration with Irma Thomas, Ian, and his cousin Ivan Neville was a highlight—was raised Catholic in the Crescent City, like her co-stars Davell Crawford, Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr., Jon Batiste, and Dee-1.
Also among the flock was the film’s resident bassist George Porter Jr., who with Art Neville, Ziggy Modeliste, and Leo Nocentelli helped invent the funk genre as The Meters in the late 1960s. (As a child, Porter considered becoming a priest.)
On the narrative side, though one could be fooled by its marketing into thinking the movie is a history doc, the film is moreso a behind-the-scenes look at a series of studio performances from the assembled artists, with historical vignettes on New Orleans interspersed.
In this way, it was similar to the first film in director Martin Shore’s “Take Me to the River” series, focusing on Memphis—another city along the Mississippi River—whose own Al Green recorded a popular song by the same name in 1974.
The New Orleans sequel climaxes with an extended treatment of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 tragedy that devastated the city and changed its music scene drastically. Many of the film’s subjects were present for the storm and recounted their harrowing experiences, as well as their part in helping the city recover.
In that sense, music helps make New Orleans what it is today in a similar way that it did from its founding. African rhythms have rung out in the riverside city since the era of colonial French and Spanish slavery, of course. The city’s downtown Congo Square functioned as a place for those in bondage to play, dance, and sing the songs of their homeland, eventually forming the basis of much of Black music—a fact not lost on the filmmakers or their musical muses.
“Take Me to the River” shows that this legacy continues in a variety of forms, whether the jazz of Rebirth Brass Band, the funk of the Soul Rebels, the neo-soul and gospel of PJ Morton, the bounce music of Big Freedia, or the one-of-a-kind Black Masking Indian tunes of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux.
Bringing together such a formidable musical cast of locals and admirers was surely no small feat, and the result shows that one of the country’s oldest, Blackest, and most Catholic cities is indispensable to the history of not just Black music, but to the very idea of art indigenous to America.
Hopefully that essentiality translates to a wider theater run for the film in the near future, and perhaps the same digital outcome as its Memphis predecessor—which eventually hit Netflix and has streamed for free on YouTube since last year.
Until then, you and everyone will just have to settle for the soundtrack. And that ain’t so bad.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).