The new ‘funkumentary,’ Do U Want It?, is director Josh Freund’s cinematic love letter to the band Papa Grows Funk and the New Orleans music scene.
By Morgan Levey
For 90 minutes on a winter evening a vortex opened in Chicago’s Davis Theater and the crowd was transported down south, to the land of crawfish boils and funk music. Do U Want It?, a feature-length documentary about the former New Orleans-based band Papa Grows Funk, made its Chicago debut as part of the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. Billed as a “funkumentary,” the film examines the joy of making music in New Orleans, but the hardship of making it big anywhere else.
Medill Reports sat down with Josh Freund, one of the film’s co-directors and a Medill alum (BSJ 2012), after the movie’s screening.
Medill Reports: Can you tell me the impetus for making Do U Want It?
Josh Freund: I moved to New Orleans in the fall of 2012 basically because I loved New Orleans music. I moved with Sam Radutzky, a friend of mine from college [and the movie’s co-director]. So we started our company making videos for bands, and we just went to a lot of shows. That’s what we were there to do, and that’s what we did. Two to five nights a week we went and saw music.
Our favorite thing that we saw was Papa Grows Funk, Monday nights at the Maple Leaf. And we would go every Monday night for months. They’d start late and they’d go late. It was so fun and so good, I’d just feel good all week. Like I’d just ride the high from Monday.
But Papa Grows Funk in January of 2013 made an announcement that they were going to take a hiatus the subsequent June. And they were going to do a final tour — another six months. So Sam and I approached the band.
MR: So what did you propose to them?
JF: We asked them, could we make a commemorative thing about you? A 15 to 20 minute video — film a couple shows, do a couple interviews. They were super down and we met with the manager and with John Gros, the bandleader, and made a little plan. He set us up with interviews with some of the most influential people in New Orleans — George Porter Jr. and Quint Davis, and other fans and other people that had known the band.
MR: So how did it turn into a 90-minute film?
JF: The band had been a band for 13 years and we came on in the last year. We didn’t know the history so well. We started doing these interviews and pretty quickly we realized that there was a lot more to the story than we realized at first. We thought it was representative of greater things, nuances of what we thought was a very unique culture and community — the New Orleans music scene.
MR: Sounds like you thought the first video was just going to be about their music and making music, and then it turned into a story of them as individuals, as people and as a band.
JF: It really turned into a story about New Orleans. And then as representative of like a syndrome of New Orleans, or symptoms of New Orleans. An amazing hotbed for music, but kind of a world unto itself, like a vacuum where no one really gives a s–t about what’s going on outside New Orleans and loves everything that’s happening within New Orleans. It’s this weird, amazing and terrible thing.
MR: What’s your favorite point of the film?
JF: [Long pause] Musically, my favorite point of the movie is during the final tour in Austin when they do the song “Fish Eyed Fool,” which is actually written by the bass player, but features like this beautiful gospel organ intro with the sax. And then the drum comes in. In the movie it comes just after we hear something about the guitar player, June, quitting and it’s sad. And then you hear this really moving arrangement and then it turns into a funk jam. That really always moves me.
And then I also just really love the last bite of the movie. I really fought for that one. The original drummer, Russell Batiste Jr., who is a legend in New Orleans and a maniac, he’s just like, “All I need in life is to play music in New Orleans for my friends and family and I’m good.” I thought that was a great point that we were trying to give the audience to chew on. Sam and I went back and forth for sure, but I was always felt that’s got to be the last bite.
MR: That line comes during the song, “Walking to New Orleans,” where you do this montage of New Orleans scenes. How did that come together?
JF: It was very important for Sam not to end on the band. He was like, it’s bigger than the band, it’s about New Orleans. We really wanted to establish throughout the movie that New Orleans was a character in the film, in and of itself. That was this bigger message we wanted to drive home and make sure people knew. It’s not just about the band it’s about greater forces – the music’s bigger than one band.
MR: What was it like screening the film in New Orleans?
JF: I don’t think we’re going to have a better screening ever than the one we had in New Orleans. We had the biggest theater that they offered of all their venues. We sold out the theater, it was like a 250-seat theater. New Orleans Film Festival told us we sold more tickets than any film in the whole festival.
ML: And the whole band came?
JF: Four out of five band members came, almost everybody there was local. In the Q&A I asked the crowd how many people have seen the band, and almost every one of the 250 raised their hand. It was just so personal. People were like whooping and hollering and clapping and laughing. It was very energetic. It was like a party.
It’s like seeing your friends in a movie, which again is just such a unique phenomenon of New Orleans. All the local celebrities are your neighbors. It’s like your buddy is a world-class musician and you go see him play.
Dates for additional screenings of Do U Want It? are available at www.douwantitfilm.com.