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November 2007

New Orleans Music In Exile

Like Spike Lee’s HBO film When the Levees Broke, which showed the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans residents in general, director Robert Mugge’s New Orleans Music in Exile pinpoints the 2005 storm’s wrath on Crescent City musicians. More documentary than music video, it primarily uses songs as a backdrop to footage shot in the two months after Katrina, plus commentary and performances by resident musicians like Dr. John, Cyril Neville, Irma Thomas, Theresa Andersson and Marcia Ball.

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Christopher Li

Irma Thomas and New Orleans Music in Exile director Robert Mugge

Vocalist/violinist Andersson delivers a chilling rendition of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” to accompany images of the Big Easy becoming anything but on Aug. 29, 2005; Dr. John looks to be in shock as he offers prayers for his city, and that’s all just in the disc’s first two minutes. Some of the same analysts from Lee’s film resurface to make points that bear repeating, namely that governmental agencies from local to federal ignored advance warnings and failed to meet residents’ needs after the storm.

Musicians displaced to Houston explain why they miss their hometown; New Orleans club owners talk of holes in their entertainment calendars, and locals like pianist Jon Cleary tell of the horrors of returning home. Bonus features include Cleary’s history of New Orleans piano, and additional footage that Mugge shot in New Orleans, Lafayette and Memphis.

As Neville explains, “Each little neighborhood in New Orleans is a village.” Images of musicians’ houses displaced hundreds of feet from their foundations offer proof that it can take just one storm to unmake several villages. More than two years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Music in Exile makes three important points: New Orleans hasn’t recovered, New Orleans music hasn’t recovered, and music in general still hasn’t recovered.

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