Michael Murphy’s new film distills New Orleans’ deep, diverse musical culture into a packed 103-minutes. Featuring local stars and international names Keith Richards, Robert Plant and Sting, Up from the Streets—New Orleans: The City of Music reaches from pre-colonial native American rhythms to enslaved Africans playing drums in Congo Square to opera, jazz, gospel, rhythm-and-blues, funk, rap and bounce.
Up from the Streets will make its world premiere October 19th at the 30th Annual New Orleans Film Festival. “It’s the perfect place for it,” Murphy said in the front room of his Uptown home. “This film is about my hometown and our culture and our musicians. It’s the most important film we have ever created.”
A filmmaker for more than 30 years, Murphy’s myriad credits include 2005’s Make It Funky! and the 2003’s Legends of New Orleans: The Music of Fats Domino. The writer-director and his producer, Cilista Eberle, invested five years and thirty-five edits into Up from the Streets. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation Archive gave the filmmakers access to archival material and allowed them to film interviews at the George and Joyce Wein Jazz and Heritage Center. “I wanted to hit as many different threads as I could and make an engaging, compelling, entertaining film,” Murphy said.
Murphy originally envisioned a five-or six-part project. When funding for that proved difficult, he opted for a feature-length documentary. Murphy and Eberle financed the project themselves until they obtained funding in 2017. Securing financing and distribution is always a lengthy process, Eberle said. “You have to get the meeting,” she explained. “But if Michael can get the meeting, he can sell it.”
Jim Moriarty, Murphy’s friend and former camera operator, confirms that the 69-year-old filmmaker is the best advocate for his projects. “Michael can walk into an office and tell the story of the importance of what’s he doing,” said Moriarty, vice president of YES Productions in New Orleans. “They trust in what he says and what he delivers. And he’s been delivering forever.”
Told many times that jazz doesn’t sell, Murphy never bought that common show business belief. “I was seeing five-hundred thousand people come to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which I filmed for nearly twenty-five years,” he said. “I knew there has always been an audience for it.”
In 2017, Eagle Rock Entertainment, a London-based division of the Universal Music Group, signed on as Up from the Streets’ distributor and executive producer. “The artists who have given identity to what we think of as the music of New Orleans,” Eagle Rock’s Geoff Kempin says in a release, “are now represented by a film that is both insightful and honest in its portrayal of the music culture of the city.”
The panorama Murphy presents in Up from the Streets includes biographical sketches of Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Danny Barker and the Neville Brothers. Musicians and experts also offer their take on what makes the city and its music special, including Harry Connick, Jr, Irma Thomas, Branford, Jason and Wynton Marsalis and Mannie Fresh. New performances shot for the film—including Terence Blanchard with Quiana Lynell and a duet featuring Aaron and Ivan Neville—join archival performance footage.
“Terence and the other musicians in this film, they’re the key element,” said Bruce Raeburn, an Up from the Streets consultant and former curator at the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. “If you experience New Orleans music, you’re going to get the message.”
In addition to performing for the film, Blanchard, a Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated trumpeter-composer, naturally fills the role of host and guide. “Terence is so personable, so good on camera,” Murphy said.
Veteran filmmaker though Murphy is, he feared during the film’s production that he’d taken on too much. The anxiety led him to seek consolation from Blanchard, an executive producer for the film. “I’ll never forget Terence saying, ‘Michael, you’re an artist. You’re a filmmaker. Make the film you want to make and I’ll support you.’”
When Raeburn watched a rough cut of Up from the Streets, he found himself moved to tears. “I’m the academic who has to stay one step removed and be ‘objective’,” he said. “But I also played drums with James Booker and Earl King. When I think about Allen Toussaint and Booker, and all the deaths since I’ve seen the film’s rough cut—Spencer Bohren, Art Neville, Dr. John, Dave Bartholomew—those are huge losses. I was beaming because I knew them and worked with them, but grieving because they’re gone.”
The film does indeed tell a stirring story, Moriarty said. “Michael and Cilista understand the big picture, the players and where they came from.”
Sonny Schneidau, the former House of Blues and Tipitina’s talent buyer who’s an associate producer for Up from the Streets, noted Murphy’s dedication to the musicians he’s been documenting for decades. “Michael put his heart into this,” he said. “New Orleans musicians are so deserving of wide attention, and I hope this shines a light on them.” O
The New Orleans Film Festival premieres Up from the Streets—New Orleans: The City of Music at 1 p.m. Saturday, October 19, at the Orpheum Theater.