"Do U Want It?" shows some of the challenges bands face that have nothing to do with labels or fans.
Josh Freund and Sam Radutzky inadvertently set a task for themselves when they decided to shoot a documentary on Papa Grows Funk. The New Orleans funk band was exactly what people thought it was—a very good, very funky band that loved to jam. It never had an obvious story though, and its members weren’t characters. Because of that, it wasn’t a natural hook for the movie, but Do U Want It? starts as a document of the love the band inspired in its fans. A different story slowly develops though, one that is specific to Papa Grows Funk in some ways and typical of many New Orleans bands in others.
Do U Want It? shows at the Prytania Theatre Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. as part of the New Orleans Film Festival.
Freund and Radutzky work under the name ABIS Productions, and My Spilt Milk has been pleased to premiere concert videos they shot of Jon Cleary and Soulive. Visually, they treat their subjects with warmth and respect, and it’s obvious from the start of Do U Want It? that they love Papa Grows Funk. When they show the band playing at the Maple Leaf, they give viewers a healthy serving. Narratively, longer performance segments feel a little slack, but they make the band’s improvised nature clear, and that pays off in the last act. If nothing else, those big chunks early in the movie give us an appreciation for what it is the fans love.
That affectionate opening sequence drifts into the story of Papa Grows Funk, from its start as a post-Jazz Fest jam at the Old Point Bar to a reason to cross the river to its move to the Maple Leaf, and beyond. Much of the story is told conventionally by band members, friends, fans and participants, but rather than let talking heads carry the visual narrative, Freund and Radutzky allow animation to stand in for the countless nights that nobody shot. The quick sketch, unlabored style easily stood for memories and worked with surprising ease.
About halfway through Do U Want It?, the narrative tightens up. Papa Grows Funk had become about as big as it could get in New Orleans, and the international audience that found it through Jazz Fest suggested that there was a bigger one to be reached on the road. But it’s one thing for a band of relatively unencumbered musicians in their 20s to leave their day jobs to tour; for older musicians with families and mortgages, taking off and doing the things necessary to genuinely grow the band’s reach come at some hard costs. At that point, the film follows the thread as the conversations the members never had and questions they never asked lead to the break-up in 2013. Ironically, a moment that seemed like a high point to everybody outside the band was the last straw for those inside it.
Freund and Radutzky show themselves throughout the movie to be able to get compelling live footage that appreciates the band dynamic, even in a space as constricted as the Maple Leaf’s stage. They successfully convey the sense of an event that a Papa Grows Funk post-Jazz Fest show had become, and they treat the band as a band instead of staying focused on John Gros or guitarist June Yamagishi. The offstage interviews have an ease that suggests their ability to fit into the touring van without disrupting the equilibrium. Their storytelling, however, could be tightened up. Nothing in the first half hour of Do U Want It? suggests that the documentary will go where it does. It begins as an extreme exercise in fandom that develops into a compelling movie. In the process, they get to some hard realities about the nature of band life that fans don’t think about and musicians often take for granted until they face them.