Treme, The Musical
We’re all watching Treme, the HBO series about New Orleans three months after Katrina, right? It sets a new standard for genuine roots music on tv.
Forget about American Idiot — er, Idol, VH1 or even David Sanborn’s late, lamented Night Music — Treme celebrates the foundations and outgrowths of popular music in the U.S. — jazz, blues, funeral brass bands with a second line, Mardi Gras Indian chants, soundtracks for French Quarter strippers, rap with a Crescent City beat. In three episodes of this far-reaching realistic drama, produced by the great David Simon and Eric Overmyer, we’ve already been in a street parade following Rebirth Brass Band, in a recording studio with Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, in a bar (alongside Elvis Costello) hearing trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, in Greenwich Village’s Blue Note for a solo by alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, at WWOZ’s radio studios with Cajun Coco Robicheaux, bumping into Trombone Shorty on Bourbon Street, in Jackson Square with buskers, at a private party where pianist Tom McDermott duets with sweet young violinist Lucia Micarelli on Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” and at a piano lesson where actor Steve Zahn, insufferable as a local fanboy, announces to his teenage student, “Forget all you’ve been told about Jesus, Buddha, Zeus, there is one God — and his name is Professor Longhair.” He proceeds to teach her the basic F major bass line of “Tipitina,” explaining the song’s mambo beat. (Each Treme episode’s soundtrack is available for purchase at its website.)
As someone else noticed first, there was more music presented whole — without anyone explaining its historical context or pontificating on its social value — in the first episode of this show, which I cheer has been extended into a second season — that there was in the entire 10 hours of Ken Burns’ Jazz. The stylistic array and its urban display is totally satisfying to all who’ve ever known what it means to miss New Orleans — Louis Prima sings “Buona Sera” lustily while the camera tours the riverfront, Louis Armstrong blows his golden horn behind a backyard barbeque, Zahn’s gay neighbors listen to Louis Gottschalk, everybody has music on in their homes all the time.
To top it off, last week the third episode ended with one of the most remarkable and affecting musical scenes ever to grace a fiction film: a fervently heart-felt Mardi Gras Indians’ performance of “Indian Red” in an outdoor memorial service for a fallen member of a 9th Ward tribe. The vocal calls date back some two hundred years, the percussion probably precedes that by an eon, and here’s true-life Big Chief Darryl Montana participating along with utterly convincing Clarke Peters, who portrays a grim returnee determined to pull his culture back together. Peters’ character ended the 90-minute introductory show with an incandescent dance, wearing his orange feathered and intricately beaded Carnival costume in the otherwise dark streets of his neighborhood (electricity hasn’t yet been restored). That was a ghostly image, but one promising continuity and renewal, not a fading grace.
There are many things to like about Treme: acting that includes the bumptious good humor of Wendell Pierce, knockabout trombonist; the depiction of New Orleans’ food culture, epitomized by the beautiful but hardworking Kim Dickens who struggles to reopen her restaurant; the legacy of racial hierarchies suffered by hard-bitten saloon owner LaDonna Batiste-Williams, who was once Pierce’s wife; the devotion of pro bono lawyers, embodied here by Melissa Leo trying to trace a missing man, and the unvarnished telling of truth to power as presented by John Goodman, whose size makes us worry he won’t be around forever. But what’s greatest overall about Treme is that it depicts a unique, rich culture from the inside, without dumbing down or even explanation. “Here’s New Orleans,” it seems to say, “do you get it now? Do you understand what it means when 3/4s of the place is washed away? Think how this affects your vision of what America is and could be.”
That’s what I’m taking from it, anyway. Since childhood I’ve been a sucker for music theater: I dig “Show Boat” and everything Frank Loesser (whose centenary arrives in June), Irving Berlin’s”Annie Get Your Gun,” Bernstein and Sondheim’s “West Side Story”, Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate,” “Li’l Abner,” “Gypsy,” “Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and of course “Porgy and Bess.” On tv, I’ve enjoyed Pennies from Heaven and even Cop Rock. It’s not a stretch to consider this theatrical legacy as an outgrowth and now treasure of America’s musical heritage; the scores and lyrics were derived from the same sources as all the rest of American popular music, and now feeds all the singers, songwriters, composer and instrumentalists who’ve ever inhaled this country’s air. There’s never been anything before, though, that’s as successful in comprehensively capturing the heartbeat of a city as Treme.
Ok, it’s not perfect: problems include that plot lines aren’t in clear focus yet; sometimes the patois has one begging for subtitles, and also you might wonder if there’s a nation beyond this community of survivors — when the scene shifts to NYC it’s a shock, but only lasts for a moment. Forces of official law and order are all so far depicted as brutal and uncaring. I suspect politicians and exploiters will soon be showing their weasily faces. Citizens, hold tight!
But as with Simon’s brilliant The Wire, and before that Homicide: Life on the Streets, patience is rewarded with the complex interweavings and relationships, albeit in necessary artistic compression of life. The amount of incident and cross-influence is bound to be exaggerated because the program’s ambition is panoramic yet the audience needs strong characters as guides. Like Dickens, Tolstoy and Faulkner, among others, the writers are trying to balance accurate social commentary with the imperatives of personal struggle. It’s a tall order.
It’s always great to hear New Orleans music — and to sit watching the flatscreen, wondering if/when Fats Domino will make an actual appearance, or the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas, Dr. Michael White, Dave Torkanovsky, Little Queenie, Beausoliel, the Dirty Dozen, one of the gospel choirs. How will the revival of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival be treated (the NOJHF is happening for real right now — why aren’t we there)? Will we get inside Preservation Hall (we’ve already walked past it). Is Wynton Marsalis welcome on this show? His name has been brought up with due ambivalence. What about his father Ellis and brothers? Or Kidd Jordan and his extraordinary musical progeny?
I can’t quite see how the series can run on into the future (this must be why I’m not writing for it). Are we going to get as frustrated as N’Awlin’s actual residents with the unacknowledged national neglect, the unrepaired damage, surges of violent crime, our inability to wrap collective will around the project of renewal? Is there a future of New Orleans? I keep coming back to the music. Even if Treme had no plot lines, no sympathetic people and was shot on a cellphone, to be immersed in such sounds would be enough. As it is, we can enjoy HBO’s high production values and the creative attentions of Simon’s brilliant cast and crew. As long Treme is this good, I’m staying home on Sunday nights to indulge.