Unless you live in New Orleans or know someone who does, you might not have paid much attention to its reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina. Robert Mugge’s documentary, New Orleans Music in Exile, focuses on the lives of the city’s musicians in the aftermath of the hurricane, and how they dealt with the destruction of their homes, clubs, and livelihoods.
Filmed by Mugge in 2005 and 2006, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Music in Exile chronicles the devastation leveled on New Orleans and its musical community firsthand. Musicians give the filmmaker a tour of their ravaged homes and businesses. Irma Thomas surveys her club, the Lion’s Den Lounge, its interior gutted by the storm. The musicians monitor their losses, salvaging what they can, with furniture, pianos, tapes, sheet music all destroyed, black mold overtaking the waterlogged structures.
After Katrina forced them out of their homes, New Orleans’s musicians scattered to nearby cities - Houston, Austin, Memphis, and Lafayette - and continued playing music in their temporary domiciles. Cyril Neville has a residence at Threadgill’s in Austin, Cowboy Mouth and World Leader Pretend perform at the Voodoo Festival in Memphis, and Kermit Ruffins has a regular gig at the Red Cat Jazz Café in Houston. Despite warm welcomes in their new homes, they all express a desire to return to New Orleans ASAP.
The film features 24 songs from New Orleans bands, with a diverse group of artists performing jazz, pop, rock, and zydeco. Dr. John, the Iguanas, Cyril Neville, Eddie Bo, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Marcia Ball, and other familiar Crescent City names are highlighted, along with lesser-known acts (World Leader Pretend, beatinpath, and Theresa Johnson, who sings a harrowing version of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” to begin the film).
Bonus features on the 2016 Blu-Ray release include full musical performances and additional interviews. Jon Cleary recounts the history of New Orleans piano, and David Spizale, the manager of radio station KRVS in Lafyaette, LA, talks about the chaotic scene surrounding the rescue of stranded residents by civilian boats.
Mugge interviews the people who chronicled the New Orleans music scene before and after Katrina. They include Times Picayune music writer Keith Spera, Offbeat publisher Jan Ramsey and WWOZ radio host David Freedman. The guardians of the present, past, and future of the New Orleans music scene, they provide a unifying thread to the documentary.
The Ninth Ward sustained much of the damage, but Vaughn’s Monday night jams with Kermit Ruffins are back. Irma Thomas’ Lions Den, however, is now permanently closed. The commercial part of the Quarter now has more generic names than ever including Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Café, Hustler Hollywood, etc. replacing many of the independent shops and clubs damaged during the hurricane. The Maple Leaf Bar, Tipitina's, Snug Harbor. and other clubs mentioned in this documenary are still going strong in 2016.
New Orleans Music in Exile offers an intimate perspective on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The documentary follows the lives of several musicians as they come to grips with personal and professional loss in the wake of Katrina. No matter how bad things seem, the members of New Orleans’s tight-knit musical community vow to return and continue the city’s vibrant tradition of jazz, blues, brass band, zydeco and pop.