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The Whole Gritty City     cover image

The Whole Gritty City 2014

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Alexander Street Press, 350 7th Ave/Ste 1100, New York, NY 10001
Produced by Richard Barber & Jim Browne
Directed by Richard Barber & Andre Lambertson
DVD , color, 89 min.

High School - General Adult
Music, Race Relations, Marching Bands, Adolescents, Criminal Justice

Date Entered: 05/19/2015

ALA Notable: yes
Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland

The directors, Richard Barber and Andre Lambertson, have created a simple documentary about very complex and interrelated topics. At the surface the films appears to be about the efforts, successes, and failures of marching bands in New Orleans’ poorer wards, but it does not take long to understand that this movie is about so much more. There is no denying that the role these bands play in their respective community is important, but they are also an enriching alternative to succumbing to the worst a city in strife like New Orleans has to offer to youth. Barber and Lambertson allow the subjects to speak for themselves, figuratively and literally, and provide little commentary or no narration to lead the viewer towards any outcome. At times this can make for an uncertain narrative structure, but for the most part it succeeds in getting across the primary lesson: Without these bands, so many of the city’s youth would not just be in trouble, they would be dead.

Primarily shot during 2007 and 2008, the film follows three marching bands in preparation for the Mardi Grad parade season, concurrently while coping with the chaos that surrounds these particular bands due to the rough neighborhoods they call home. The larger setting is Post-Katrina New Orleans – the trauma of which had not yet fully released its devastating grip on the city. The performance documentation is ideal with rehearsal footage, documentation of private instruction and practice, and performances shot from alongside or within the bands in parade. Interspersed throughout is informal footage captured on smart phones by members (Bear, Skully, Kirk, and Jazz) selected from the three bands. This more personal approach invites the viewers into the private home lives on the members, and the differing circumstances within which they live and grow. The first half of the film is almost entirely exposition, while the second half examines the parade season and what follows for the kids. The DVD also offers wonderful bonus features that help to flesh out the topic, including additional performances and more home footage.

The band directors and co-directors are clearly community leaders, and the content reveals that they are much more than music educators to the members. Despite any subtle differences between the bands, one factor that is consistent is that participation in these ensembles is a means for youth to develop self-discipline and self-value. As such, intensity is favored over intonation in performance, making for powerful and expressive musical moments – certainly far more moving than anything a premiere Drum Corps International marching ensemble can create. As the film turns to the performance setting of parade season, viewers may wonder about meaning in these performances by African American youth, especially when one result of their efforts is entertaining topless and/or drunk white idiots – some who are captured on film harassing the band members. Appropriately, a performance at the funeral of a slain fellow band member has so much more meaning and gravity in this documentary.

The Whole Gritty City should be required viewing for any music educator in training, especially those with hopes for a career as a band director. All academic music libraries supporting music education programs are highly recommended to include this documentary in their media collection. Libraries supporting ethnomusicology, youth studies, race studies, or the social sciences will also find the film a worthwhile addition.