Josh Freund and Sam Radutzky fell hard for Papa Grows Funk. Newly minted Northwestern University graduates, they moved to New Orleans in the summer of 2012 and soon discovered the band’s weekly Monday night gig at the Maple Leaf Bar.
To Freund and Radutzky, Papa Grows Funk on Mondays at the Maple Leaf represented the very essence of their adopted hometown, all that was right and good about life and music in New Orleans.
So they were devastated when, a few months later, the band announced its impending breakup.
As co-founders of ABIS Productions, a video production company with an emphasis on music-related content, Freund and Radutzky resolved to document Papa Grows Funk’s demise.
The result is ABIS’ first feature-length documentary, "Do U Want It?"
In this film, Papa Grows Funk essentially serves as a stand-in for the whole contemporary New Orleans music community, illuminating the factors that make that community so special but sometimes impede national success.
"Do U Want It?" premieres at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Prytania Theater, 5339 Prytania St., as part of the New Orleans Film Festival.
Leading Papa Grows Funk “was a 13-year ride that changed my life for the better,” founding keyboardist and vocalist John “Papa” Gros said this week. “It was a blast, it was frustrating, it was rewarding and it was draining. The movie captures all of that.”
That Freund and Radutzky, credited as having written, directed, edited, shot and produced the film, are hard-core Papa Grows Funk fans is apparent. They devote long passages to the band’s live performances, lovingly shot with multiple cameras. Taken as a whole, “Do U Want It?” elevates Papa Grows Funk to something more than a bedrock New Orleans band with only a modest national following.
“Music documentaries are about legendary artists like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, etc.,” Gros said. “It’s hard to consider yourself worthy when that’s been your benchmark. It's quite bizarre.”
The band’s origins, as chronicled through a series of on-camera interviews, were humble. In 2000, Gros, a veteran of bassist George Porter Jr.’s band and his own long-standing solo gig on Bourbon Street, recruited a handful of seasoned musicians for what was envisioned as a jam session at the Old Point Bar in Algiers Point.
“The goal,” Gros says in the film, “was to have five guys who could pretty much play just about anything but not have to worry about being a real band.”
Specializing in Meters-derived New Orleans funk, they became a band in spite of themselves. The roster solidified with guitarist June Yamagishi, bassist Marc Pero, saxophonist Jason Mingledorff and drummer Russell Batiste Jr., who was later replaced by Jeffery “Jellybean” Alexander.
When a member wasn’t available — they all had other commitments, including, in Pero’s case, a day job at a plastics manufacturer — a capable substitute was always available.
Welcoming new players to the bandstand is a hallmark of the New Orleans scene. As Maple Leaf owner Hank Staples puts it, “I often tell people there’s only one band from New Orleans, but it’s got 3,000 members.”
In 2001, Papa Grows Funk moved its Monday night residency to the Maple Leaf. For the next 12 years, the band built it into something special.
Working without a set list, the five world-class musicians kept fans dancing late into the night with one airtight groove after another. New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival producer Quint Davis contends that "you could put (Papa Grows Funk) on any festival or any show with any other band in the world, and they would stand up."
Whether to remain a local hero or strive for something more is a question that every New Orleans musician must answer. Batiste describes being happy as "a successful struggling musician in New Orleans. See my family, see my friends, hang out, play my music, make somebody dance, make somebody happy … If I can do that, I'm all right."
Gros' goal was for Papa Grows Funk to be a national act like Better Than Ezra, Galactic and the Revivalists.
But that requires touring. With wives, children, mortgages and other adult obligations, Gros and his bandmates were not as willing and able as younger musicians to pile into a van for weeks on end for little money.
A hit song can also propel a band to the next level. For Better Than Ezra, that song was "Good." For the Revivalists, it's "Wish I Knew You," which recently achieved gold-record status for selling 500,000 digital copies.
Tracey Freeman, the producer of Papa Grows Funk’s early albums, employed a hands-off approach in the recording studio, letting the musicians play as they would onstage.
Gros wanted the band’s 2012 album “Needle In the Groove” to emphasize song structure, vocals and lyrics, in the hopes of crafting more radio-friendly material. To that end, he convinced his bandmates to hire Allen Toussaint and Better Than Ezra bassist Tom Drummond as co-producers.
As “Do U Want It?” makes clear, the making of “Needle In the Groove” exacerbated existing tensions within the band.
Drummond describes encouraging the musicians to play multiple takes of a song the same way, an approach that runs counter to Yamagishi’s more spontaneous approach. “I’m a musician; I’m not a robot,” Yamagishi says, adding that the process made him feel like a “hired musician, not a band member.”
Gros notes that "Needle In the Groove" received positive reviews and earned more airplay than any of the band’s previous albums. But his bandmates resented the process and the results.
The deepening divide between Gros and the rest of the band couldn’t be repaired. After 13 years, Papa Grows Funk said goodbye with a final, sold-out show at Tipitina’s on June 29, 2013.
For Gros, watching his band’s dissolution play out for public consumption in "Do U Want It?" is not easy.
“It’s very uncomfortable to see yourself on a big screen going through the ups and downs of life,” he said. “It’s a real story, by real people, with real emotions. Although our story is a universal story, it's very personal, and that makes it hard for me to watch.”
Still, “Do U Want It?” reminded him that “as a band, we were all frustrated and had exhausted everything we had to give. And even though I couldn’t see it or didn’t want to see it, it was time for Papa Grows Funk to end.
“Thankfully, the process of filming the movie helped me realize and accept that the successes more than outweighed the failures. I'm at peace and very proud.”
"Do U Want It?"
7:30 p.m. Wednesday
5339 Prytania St.