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Katrina Diaspora: Robert Mugge discusses the making of “New Orleans Music in Exile”
Filmmaker Robert Mugge gave Night Flight this exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of his film 2006 music documentary New Orleans Music in Exile, which examines what Hurricane Katrina and breached levees did to the city’s music community. The film has just been released on Blu-ray/DVD with bonus features by the MVD Entertainment Group. Check out our streaming selection of Robert Mugge’s films over on Night Flight Plus.
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, my son Rob and I were living in Jackson, Mississippi. Rob was in his final year of high school at the small, private Education School, and I had just completed a two-year run as Filmmaker in Residence for Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
Legendary musician and record producer Norbert Putnam was then running the Delta Music Institute at Delta State University, and he had invited me to create a “music filmmaking wing” for the DMI. In fact, on Monday, August 29, I was scheduled to meet with the university’s president to work out the details. But that was the day Katrina hit, and suddenly, all bets were off.
The storm’s effects were nowhere near as bad in Jackson as they were along the Gulf Coast, but they were bad enough: tall trees fell on houses, power lines fell across roads, electricity was out for a week, and gas was scarce for several weeks more.
My most vivid memory from the storm itself was finding a dead rat in one of our basement closets, loading it onto a snow shovel we had brought with us when we moved there from Philadelphia, opening a back door, and heaving it as far a I could into the wind and rain. It was an image worthy of a gothic novel, but it was nothing compared to the horrors happening a few hours south of us.
Fallen branches and hanging electrical wires in Jackson, MS after Hurricane Katrina. (photo by Robert Mugge)
When power finally returned, Rob and I sought to learn what had happened to our musician friends in New Orleans and elsewhere across Louisiana.
Gradually, we received word that nearly all were okay, though exiled with their families to other cities across the South, often with destroyed houses left behind. Some even went as far north as New York City, as far east as Atlanta, and as far west as Boulder, Colorado.
Filmmaker Robert Mugge (right) and his son Rob in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. (photo by Dave Sperling)
I discussed the situation with Philly-based associate Diana Zelman, and we resolved to produce a film on what the storm and breached levees had wrought for the New Orleans music community. As with all of my projects, I would direct and edit. But I knew, going in, that the challenges this time would be too big for a single producer.
Meanwhile, I learned that my promised position at Delta State had been cancelled, the victim of lower expected revenues for the university, now that Gulf Coast casinos had been flattened, preventing them from contributing to Mississippi’s educational system.
Later, I learned that Norbert himself had left the university, probably due to the same sudden budget constraints. So, this seemed as good a time as any for a big new project and one where we could potentially do a lot of good, bringing attention to the plight of uprooted Louisiana musicians.
Starz executives Stephan Shelanski and Michael Ruggierio with musician Theresa Andersson. (Starz photo)
Next, I contacted Starz Entertainment Group executives Stephan Shelanski and Brett Marottoli who had previously underwritten my 2002/2003 film Last of the Mississippi Jukes and then acquired my 2004/2005 film Blues Divas with Morgan Freeman (actually both a film and a TV series I produced for Mississippi Public Broadcasting).
I explained that I wanted to move as quickly as possible to capture the damage and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans itself, while also tracking down and filming prominent musicians in their new, presumably temporary homes elsewhere.
Stephan and Brett were intrigued by the idea, yet wary they could pull together sufficient funding on extremely short notice.
Audio person Seth Tallman records Robert Mugge’s interview with Cowboy Mouth singer and drummer Fred LeBlanc at AutoZone Park in Memphis. (photo by Rob Mugge)
Ultimately, Starz and I worked out that Diana and I would take a small crew to film the transplanted Voodoo Fest – usually held in New Orleans but, for that year only, mostly moved to AutoZone Park in Memphis – and accompanying Beale Street performances sponsored by Southern Comfort.
The outcome of that effort would determine whether Starz would provide the money needed for us also to shoot in New Orleans and elsewhere.
The happy result was successful filming of performances by Dr. John, Cyril Neville and Tribe 13, Cowboy Mouth, Theresa Andersson, beatinpath, and World Leader Pretend, as well as interviews with Voodoo promoter Steve Rehage, Recording Academy and MusiCares executives Jon Hornyak and Reid Wick, and such displaced musicians as Paul Sanchez of Cowboy Mouth and Mike Mayeux of beatinpath.
Robert Mugge, Dave Sperling, Seth Tallman, Chris Li, and Diana Zelman film Army Corps of Engineers executives in New Orleans. (photo by Rob Mugge)
Perhaps the highlight of our time in Memphis was also filming Theresa Andersson in a local recording studio as she sang “Like A Hurricane” in one take, then accompanied herself on violin in another.
My intention was to recreate a vision I’d had of an angel overlooking the flooded City of New Orleans, and Theresa performing Neil Young’s immortal song along with actual hurricane footage surely filled the bill.
Robert Mugge and Dave Sperling prepare to film Theresa Andersson in a Memphis recording studio. (photo by Chris Li)
In the meantime, Starz assigned new executive Michael Ruggiero to oversee the project, and he was happy enough with reports from Memphis to okay filming in New Orleans as well. Of course, at that point in late October, the city was barely functioning.
For instance, as our crew quickly learned, most hotels, restaurants, and other businesses were still closed; abandoned cars and boats littered the landscape; the air was dense with particles not conducive to breathing; countless homes were damaged beyond repair; blue protective tarps covered the roof of every second or third dwelling; cell phone and Internet service were intermittent at best; and stores displayed warnings that looters would be shot.
For the most part, people seen on the street tended to be aid workers, construction crews, and Blackwater security guards (unmistakable from their black outfits, automatic weapons, and menacing looks). But somehow, Diana managed to find us rooms in a slightly damaged hotel close to the French Quarter and figured out which few restaurants were at least partially up and running again.
Certainly, among the heroes of the post-Katrina era were those first few business owners able to reopen quickly and provide services to everyone trying to reclaim and rebuild the city.
The effects of Hurricane Katrina and breached levees in New Orleans.(photo by Chris Li)
In our case, eternal thanks goes to Mother’s, the legendary, cafeteria-style restaurant on Poydras Street which has specialized in “po’ boys & down-home Southern fare since 1938.”
After fleeing Katrina along with everyone else, the owners had returned in mid-September; repaired the roof and insides of the modest eatery; hired a disaster relief company to clean it; located their longtime employees, many of whom had lost their homes; set up nine FEMA trailers for them in the restaurant’s parking lot; and reopened again on October 15th.
For us, it was a godsend because, when we arrived in New Orleans just two weeks later, we literally found few places to eat, and Mother’s was only a couple of blocks from our no-frills hotel.
The interior of Mother’s Restaurant in New Orleans.
Every morning, Mother’s served up a filling breakfast, accompanied by good-natured banter from the resilient cooks and cashiers. Also, if our early shoots didn’t take us too far across town, we returned to Mother’s for lunch, the menu boasting whatever could be procured that day.
Living up to its name, Mother’s was, in a sense, the epicenter of our universe during a very trying time, providing both the nourishment and the fellowship we needed to make it through the week.
Yes, one night, we did manage to reserve a table at a French restaurant, fitfully reopened with limited fare, but offering plenty of wine and a modicum of normalcy. Yet, day in and day out, it was Mother’s that kept us going.
Charitable efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. (photo by Rob Mugge)
During our time in the city, our primary goals included documenting the overall devastation and recording interviews with key witnesses to what had happened, among them OffBeat magazine editor Jan Ramsey, Times-Picayune music critic Keith Spera, WWOZ-FM general manager David Freedman, Tipitina’s talent booker Adam Shipley, Tipitina’s Foundation head Bill Taylor, and top officials of the beleaguered Army Corps of Engineers.
Of course, just two months after the storm, there was little live music we could film. However, our first night after arriving, we did manage to shoot Papa Grows Funk performing a Halloween show at the Maple Leaf Bar, the club itself notable as the first New Orleans music venue to reopen after Katrina, and well before the return of either electricity or running water.
Reportedly, Walter “Wolfman” Washington played the first new show at the Leaf on September 30, 2005, with a diesel generator providing power, the bathrooms not yet functioning, and the police and National Guard eventually forcing an end to the party because of curfew.
Signs outside of Tipitina’s in New Orleans two months after Hurricane Katrina. (photo by Rob Mugge)
A month later, as our guys were setting up there, Diana wanted to secure food for both crew and musicians. The club’s manager directed her to a sandwich shop a few blocks away, but warned that, currently, the surrounding area was not safe.
So, I accompanied her there, and when the food was finally ready, someone from the club went to accompany her back. I’ll never forget stumbling through the dark streets with her, turning a corner, and suddenly seeing lights of that one small business shining like a beacon.
Once again, the choices were few, but at least someone cared enough to provide food and drink for those of us crazy enough to be in the city at the time.
Papa Grows Funk performs at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans.
During our afternoon interview with Bill and Adam at Tipitina’s, they mentioned that Big Chief Monk Boudreaux had returned to town as well and was living nearby. At our request, they phoned him, and he came right over with his headdress and tambourine in a suitcase.
As dark fell, he regaled us with two classic songs, one of which, “Lightning and Thunder,” was perfect for the film.
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux is filmed next door to Tipitina’s. (photo by Chris Li)
Another night, we filmed an intimate home performance by keyboard player Jon Cleary who, after an extended tour with Bonnie Raitt, had just returned to his Bywater neighborhood.
Strangely, his house had power while nearly all the rest around him did not. But at least that meant we could light him and his piano as he performed a few songs and told about returning to a freezer full of stinking, spoiled meat.
As Jon pointed out, everywhere you went in New Orleans, you would find refrigerators and freezers hauled to the curb in front of houses, their ruined contents now making them unusable.
Musician Jon Cleary at his home in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans.
Certainly, the most moving scenes we shot in New Orleans involved our escorting “Soul Queen of New Orleans” Irma Thomas into her badly flooded home and nightclub, accompanying Basin Street Records owner Mark Samuels into his equally damaged home and offices, and then discovering musician Stephen Assaf at his and his mother’s demolished homes.
But probably our most unique experience was documenting voodoo priestess Sallie Ann Glassman as she and her followers engaged in a ritual ceremony intended to “bring the dead city back to life again.”
Although it’s unlikely this ceremony had anything to do with the city’s ultimate revival, or even the return of electrical power midway through the event, there is no denying the creativity and theatrical flair they committed to the effort.
Mark Samuels of Basin Street Records discusses the 17th Street Canal breached levee.
If we suffered one great disappointment during our stay in New Orleans, it was the canceling of our promised ride on an Army Corps of Engineers helicopter to film the closed-off Ninth Ward.
What happened was that the visiting Prince of Wales wanted a tour as well, and no one was willing to risk an international incident on behalf of our project. Anyway, by that point, heavy metals in the air were irritating Diana’s skin, and several of us were finding breathing problematic.
So, we agreed it was time to leave again. Fortunately, Michael was pleased with what we had shot thus far, and therefore scraped together money for additional shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana then Houston and Austin, Texas.
Marcia Ball performs at Grant Street Dancehall in Lafayette, Louisiana.
In Lafayette, we filmed old friend Marcia Ball performing at Grant Street Dancehall, where she also presented a donated keyboard to her buddy Eddie Bo. Eddie, who had been playing in Paris when Katrina hit, was currently staying with his manager near Lafayette till he could safely return to New Orleans.
The night after we met, his manager invited our entire crew for an amazing home-cooked meal at her spacious home, after which one of her neighbors graciously provided an upright piano so we could shoot Eddie performing.
But as great as that was, we could not leave town before doing what we always do when shooting in Lafayette; that is, we ate at Prejean’s, our favorite Southwest Louisiana restaurant, under the watchful eyes of the giant stuffed alligator.
Producers Robert Mugge and Diana Zelman at Prejean’s Restaurant in Lafayette. (photo by Chris Li)
From Lafayette, we headed west along the Gulf Coast, always happy to find gas available, but frustrated by the inflated prices that had followed back-to-back hits by hurricanes.
Our first stop in the Lone Star State was Houston, where we filmed a makeshift version of the Rebirth Brass Band performing in a public park, then Kermit Ruffins performing at the Red Cat Jazz Cafe.
Both Kermit and Phil Frazier of ReBirth gave us touching interviews, as did the manager of the Red Cat, which had adopted Kermit as its own.
Chris Li, Seth Tallman, Robert Mugge, and Dave Sperling film Rebirth Brass Band tuba player Phil Frazier in Houston, Texas. (photo by Rob Mugge)
From there, we drove to Austin, where we filmed old friends the Iguanas at the Continental Club, then a second performance by Cyril Neville and Tribe 13 at Threadgill’s.
In addition, members of the Iguanas shared video of one of their flooded homes, and Cyril Neville declared that life in New Orleans would never be the same.
None of these artists were happy about the move to Texas, but all were grateful for the support of local musicians and club owners.
Cyril Neville is interviewed at Threadgill’s in Austin, Texas.
Buoyed by continuing good news from location, Michael was now able to fund our brief return to New Orleans.
This time, thanks to Diana’s persistence, we finally were given access to the Army Corps of Engineers helicopter so we could shoot what was left of the Ninth Ward, the damaged Superdome, and several isolated levees, all of which were better viewed from the air.
Chris Li films from the Army Corps of Engineers helicopter. (photo by Robert Mugge)
In addition, we filmed Eddie Bo again, now back in New Orleans and entering his severely damaged coffeehouse for the first time since the storm.
Sadly, Eddie and his partners agreed it was beyond repair.
Diana Zelman, Seth Tallman, and Dave Sperling film Eddie Bo at his flooded New Orleans coffeehouse. (photo by Rob Mugge)
Without the timely support we received from Starz, allowing us to begin filming just two months after Katrina and a month after Rita, my partner Diana Zelman, camera persons Dave Sperling and Chris Li, audio person Seth Tallman, production assistant Rob Mugge, and I could never have surveyed what was happening in New Orleans and elsewhere while the catastrophe was still unfolding.
Only by moving as quickly as we did could we capture the damage to neighborhoods across the city, and the looks of sadness and defeat on the faces of musicians, wherever we happened to find them. This is what allowed us to document the full magnitude of what had occurred.
The Iguanas are interviewed out back of the Continental Club in Austin, Texas.
As I’ve often said, while in New Orleans, we could have pointed our cameras in any direction and found powerful stories to tell. The destruction was so overwhelming, and the challenges so immense, that the city was awash, not just in human tragedy, but also in potential narrative.
Ironically, what made our project manageable was that we focused solely on the music community. And part of what allowed us to do that was knowing Spike Lee was planning a much broader Katrina film with a political subtext, thereby freeing us to stay small and music-oriented.
Still, I would not have had it any other way. My love of Louisiana music has led me to shoot in the state many times, not only for this film, but also for The Kingdom of Zydeco, True Believers: The Musical Family of Rounder Records, Iguanas in the House, Rhythm ‘n’ Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music, Rosie’s in the House Tonight, and Zydeco Crossroads: A Tale of Two Cities.
In addition, I’ve included Louisiana artists in other films such as Blues Divas, Deep Sea Blues, All Jams on Deck, Memphis Blues Again, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, and Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson.
The Lower Ninth Ward as seen from the Army Corps of Engineers helicopter. (photo by Robert Mugge)
On this occasion, filming the existential threat to the New Orleans music community, as well as the losses of individual musicians, was more than enough to fill a two-hour film.
In fact, during editing, I begged Starz to let me do a four-hour cut – two hours of views from inside New Orleans, and two hours from the four other cities where we filmed.
Sadly, though, the Starz execs felt no one would sit through a show that long. So, I stuck to the original plan, grateful for the chance of doing even that.
Still, imagine my frustration when, months after we premiered our film, with a budget one-tenth of what Spike Lee was given by HBO for his Katrina doc, he went on to premiere a four-hour cut, which reviewers agreed was warranted by the scale of events covered.
Dr. John is interviewed in Philadelphia.
At any rate, on February 4, 2006, with editing of the film mostly complete, we filmed a final interview with Dr. John prior to a concert in Philly. His biting comments about what had happened to his beloved city of New Orleans provided the last bit of seasoning our cinematic gumbo truly needed.
As I say, we had chosen not to get too political with our version of the story. But Dr. John, Cyril Neville, and a few others did express the anger, sadness, and frustration so many were feeling at that point.
Artists Paul Sanchez and Irma Thomas with Michael Ruggiero at the Exile world premiere in New Orleans. (Starz photo)
One final note: Typically, in making music films, one of the biggest expenses is the cost of the music itself. Producers are required to pay for so-called “sync licenses” from the publishers of each separate song used in the film. And especially in the case of well-known numbers written by prominent artists, fees can be thousands or even tens of thousands apiece.
Since this film included songs written by the likes of Neil Young and Paul McCartney, and controlled by the likes of Michael Jackson, there was a real danger that the cost of music rights alone could have prevented its release.
Fortunately, though, all of the artists and publishers understood what we were trying to do with this project and eventually agreed to what’s called a “most favored nations” payment of just $1,000.00 per song.
In fact, one artist, Australian rock star Nick Cave, in recognition of the suffering of so many New Orleans musicians, refused to take any payment at all. I believe that gesture speaks for itself.
Starz executives Michael Ruggiero, Brett Marottoli, and Bob Clausen; singer Irma Thomas; and producers Diana Zelman and Robert Mugge at the Exile world premiere in New Orleans. (Starz photo)
The finished 113-minute film was previewed at the Memphis International Film Festival on March 23, 2006, then at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on April 6, 2006, making it the first feature-length, Katrina-related documentary in release.
On May 13, 2006, it was world premiered at Landmark Canal Place Cinema in New Orleans, followed by a private reception and concert at Tipitina’s French Quarter, where Starz executives presented two $50,000 checks to the Tipitina’s Foundation for their “Instruments A Comin’” and “Hurricane Katrina: Artist Relief” programs.
Tipitina’s Foundation head Bill Taylor thanks Starz executives for their financial support. (Starz photo)
Music for the event was provided by Irma Thomas, Theresa Andersson, ReBirth Brass Band, World Leader Pretend, and Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers.
The film then premiered on the Starz in Black channel on Saturday, May 19, 2006 and on the main Starz channel a day later. In addition, Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment released the film on DVD for a time, beginning in August of 2007.
Now, of course, we are proud to have the film available worldwide on Blu-ray and via digital streaming from MVD Visual. With luck, it will serve as a multi-leveled cautionary tale.
Kermit Ruffins and his band perform for the reception at Tipitina’s French Quarter after the Exile world premiere. (Starz photo)
© 2016 Robert Mugge