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DANCING TO NEW ORLEANS

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Buckwheat Zydeco, Aaron Neville, Clarence Brown, and C.J. Chenier, Jerry Lee Lewis, many others
Director:  Michael Murphy
Video:  Color, Full Frame 1.33:1
Audio:  Dolby 5.1 and 2.0
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  See Review
Length:  89 Minutes
Release date:  September 30, 2003

"I play blues that is a more sophisticated-type blue. Blues that'll teach your kids and my kids and everybody else's kid the right way of life rather than the wrong way."   Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown

Film ****

New Orleans is indeed a whole other world, one of the few true melting pots of culture in the Western Hemisphere and a mother lode of great food, people, and music.  Europe has Prague, Vienna, and Bayreuth while the USA has Memphis, Austin, Detroit, and New Orleans--the places new music is born every day.   And only in New Orleans could a black man play a white accordion and be the height of cool!  I think my fascination with New Orleans is that musicians do not need to worry about labels; you just play what you want and blend whatever influences and instruments you want.  It resembles something like punk country or folk jazz-blues on a washboard, but as I said, labels don't work here.  Just play it and love life, the music says.

This film surprised me because I was expecting another "wowie, ain't Nawlins' great" video with the usual gumbo clichés, much like the endless Food Network specials I am forced to sit through at home.  This film, however, covers so many musical styles and has in-depth interviews with so many talented performers that it accomplishes many things that interminable productions such as Ken Burns Jazz have not: it summarizes what makes each instrument, style, and performer special and still makes you feel like you are there. 

It discuss the invention of the rub-board, which I always thought was just a washboard but which is actually a unique American instrument made to very specific specifications and had its origins in a factory in Texas, and its one-piece design changed music.  We also learn about the differences between Texas and Mississippi guitar styles, and the strong influence of religion (musical and cultural) on music.  Jazz is the most uniquely American musical style of music and its birthplace of New Orleans actually has many other styles such as Cajun Zydeco and many genres within jazz itself which are also not heard in other places. 

This special also goes into great detail about small towns and lesser-known Louisiana traditions including the Louisiana Hayride, where Hank Williams starred and popularized country music, Jerry Lee Lewis rocked out on piano (being the good Louisiana boy he was), and Elvis began his meteoritic ascent.

Video ****

Colorful as the region's music and blending old and new footage masterfully.   Many interesting segues using modern video editing techniques and no splotichiness or other problems.  A very professional job.

Audio ***

The rear channels are (as usual) neglected and not used to their full potential, the production is loud and proud and the balance between narration and music is effortless seamed together---no mean feat considering the hodgepodge of electric and acoustic instruments and footage from so many sources.  The dynamic range and mix is excellent throughout.    This is also DTS-worthy sound, but it is so well-mixed and EQ'd that you would think it is DTS, which I can't say about many other DVDs.

Features **

More than most documentaries, there are many notes on the filmmakers and various artists as well as Docurama's catalog.  Many interesting jazz references are also available.  Nothing exciting but plenty of information for those who want to learn more on their own as well as seeking other works by the authors.

Summary :

An excellent education in Louisiana music entertaining enough for non-musicians and exciting enough to make a fan out of anyone.