TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This Saturday the CBS documentary series "48 Hours" presents a documentary that's far from its usual menu of murder and mayhem. It's a two hour special called "The Whole Gritty City" and it follows young student marching bands as they prepare for coveted spots in the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: There are times when television really does try to put its best foot forward. Promoting a new fall season, for example. But it's an almost twisted rule of TV that sometimes the better a television offering is the more likely it is to be shown when even the network presenting it doesn't think many people will be watching. That's why CBS each year televises the Kennedy Center Honors during the dead week between Christmas and New Years.
It wants the prestige of showing one of the best variety specials of the year mixing opera and pop music and stars from both film and television but doesn't want to risk low ratings at a more competitive time. Similarly, that's also why CBS this weekend presents an uncharacteristically sensitive, intelligent, and inspirational edition of its "48 Hours" series. It's opposite NBC's ratings hogging coverage of the Winter Olympics so why not?
Why not, indeed? "48 Hours Presents The Whole Gritty City" is a documentary in the Fred Wiseman mold. The film by Richard Barber and Andre Lamberston has no narration - it just focuses on a specific subject for a lengthy amount of time and lets the camera record whatever happens. And then all that raw footage is edited. The only scene setting comes courtesy of Wynton Marsalis who appears at the beginning and a few more spots during the program to explain the concept, the context, and the stakes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE WHOLE GRITTY CITY")
WYNTON MARSALIS: New Orleans buries too many of its young. Our city has one of the highest murder rates in the country and almost half of our kids live in poverty. I'm Wynton Marsalis, born and raised in New Orleans. It's a city I adore. I'm a jazz man and a teacher. I've seen many times what happens when a child picks up an instrument and learns to play. Quality music has a power to transform minds and hearts and can on occasion even save lives.
Tonight you'll meet some extraordinary young musicians and the band leaders will teach them about life.
BIANCULLI: The opening scene of "The Whole Gritty City" turns out to be a flash forward. We see and hear a very large group of young people playing band instruments outdoors as part of a funeral service. They're playing sometimes with more volume and emotion than precision, a few of them wiping tears away as they blow their horns.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: We return to this scene at the end of the documentary. By then we know a lot more about these local bands and how much music means to the kids - and how they even inspire each other. One kid, an amazingly gifted young pre-teen, talks about how playing the trumpet is 25 percent of his life.
Then, holding a video camera, he takes us on a tour of some of the other 75 percent, including a street he runs down every day on his way to grade school, petrified because, he says, it has guns. We get to know the teachers and some of the members of three different bands, including a drum major nicknamed Scully who talks about the teacher who inspired him, Mr. Shavers.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE WHOLE GRITTY CITY")
SCULLY: He just came out of the blue, I'm thinking about starting a band. And if they let me you will be my first drum major. And I sat there and I said are you serious? He said - I said are you serious? He said yeah. I said man, thank you, thank you, thank you. You know, of course, he got killed.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mel Shavers was a member of the Hot Eight brass band and a music teacher and band director at Rob Wood High School. He was shot as he was driving with his family on the main street. He later died in the hospital.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...not the intended target. Police say a 15 year old stepson was the intended target because of an earlier argument.
BIANCULLI: Death is a big part of this New Orleans story - something the kids face every day and sometimes confront directly. One of the band members becomes an innocent victim of the shooting and he had thought enough about his own mortality to ask his band teacher that in the event of his death he wanted all of the local youth bands to join together to play at his funeral.
That's what they're doing at the start of "The Whole Gritty City" and again at the end, and it's what we see and hear in between that makes those bookends so memorable.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.