In the past few years, I’ve heard a good deal about the singer Meschiya Lake from friends in New York and England, and been able to enjoy her debut CD — you can hear her music here.
A new documentary by filmmaker Tao Norager, TRUE FAMILY, is a superb evocation of this compelling musician, the changing face of New Orleans, and a group of young people utterly in tune with the deepest improvising impulses. I urge you to visit here. You’ll see why I am so captivated by the film. It’s not a stodgy documentary that opens with a serious voice-over giving a history lesson. Now is it an amateurish exercise with a hand-held camera.
Rather, Tao has gotten to the heart of things with passion and directness — while staying out of the way. The result is warm yet unsentimental, with surprising mobility: in one scene, Meschiya Lake is eating cookies and milk at home; then she is getting ready for a gig in Berlin. Anything is possible, TRUE FAMILY reminds us.
Watching the film, one feels transported to delightful scenes — as Meschiya and her families of musicians create remarkable art on the streets of New Orleans, visiting clubs where dancers cavort in total harmony with the band. And Tao is a truly mobile filmmaker: we ride alongside Meschiya on her way home as she points out history and local geography.
But the film isn’t just an adoring portrait of one singer, one group of young musicians who are living fully connected to the music. Subtly and quietly, it makes us aware of the lives of improvising artists — their history, their life in the present moment. And the film is full of glorious music, as Meschiya and friends — hot jazz nomads, blues troubadours, spiritual guides and chroniclers — move from site to site. You’ll see amazing impromptu swing-dancing contests and tap-dancing buskers (frankly amazing “tap kids”) on Bourbon Street.
On one level, the documentary is an instant trip to the heart of New Orleans — but it gets beneath the surface of that brightly-colored city to show us artists honest about their lives and their music. “It’s a life in motion. The wheel has to constantly be turning. If I can’t play music, then I can’t make money to live,” Meschiya says.
There is the exuberant spectacle of Meschiya and her band jamming SATAN, YOUR KINGDOM MUST COME DOWN on a summer day in New York’s Washington Square Park — but the film keeps asking the question, “Where can art be nurtured and prosper and continue to be free?”
Ultimately, TRUE FAMILY is more than a performance film; it chronicles the near-death and vivid rebirth of both its subject, Meschiya, and the city that surrounds her.
And it glows with the joy of its music she makes with her Little Big Horns, with anyone who is spiritually allied. When she and pianist Tom McDermott are navigating through BACK WATER BLUES, we know we are in the presence of emotions and craft that come from the heart.
As the closing credits unfurl, we hear Meschiya singing MY LIFE WILL BE SWEETER ONE DAY. It’s clear that she, her friends, and her art have buoyed many people: TRUE FAMILY is imbued with a deep sweetness.
Usually at this point in a post, I would be writing that the film might be coming to a theatre near you — someday, eventually — or that you could purchase a DVD copy for a moderate sum. But I have better news. Without passing the cyber-hat for hot jazz, I can direct you to the TRUE FAMILY site where you can download and watch this engaging and quirky film for a few dollars. I commend it to you!
May your happiness increase.