Rock my soul, with the Milneburg joys,
Rock my soul, with the Milneburg joys,
Play ’em mama, don’t refuse,
Separate me from the weary blues,
Hey, hey, hey, hey,
Sweet girl, syncopate your mama.
I have two words for those who complain nothing happens on Treme: Pay Attention. From the first image of the pilot episode, we are thrust into creators David Simon (The Wire) and Eric Overmyer’s vision of New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina. The opening sequence is a series of disorienting close shots of instruments, feathers, cigarettes, booze, drugs and the stern faces of authority figures coming in and out of focus. We are not provided with establishing shots, we must establish ourselves in the world of Treme. If you don’t pay attention you’ll be left behind.
Another common complaint about Treme is that it that the musical sequences are dull and don’t add to the story. This one baffles me. These sequences are where all the best stuff happens. One of my favorite examples is from Season 2 Episode 5: Slip Away directed by Rob Baily. The first part of the sequence happens in Delmond’s (Rob Brown) apartment. As I Wish I Was in Heaven Sittin’ Down blasts from his record player, the camera slowly tilts up over the record strewn floor to reveal an agitated Delmond searching through stacks of records. As he sings, a few bars behind the song, his reflection in the mirror creates a singing twin. This reflection is neat because it physically shows Delmond’s conflict between his classical Jazz roots and the modern jazz he plays now. This conflict runs deeper than music, though, as it also represents his previous life in New Orleans with his father vs. his new life in New York. This conflict has plagued Delmond for two seasons and the next two scenes are its climax. As the song plays Delmond grows more and more agitated. Brown uses his entire body to convey this agitation. In one shot he seems to be close to finding what he is looking for as he grooves with his eyes closed to the music. In the next quick cut he is cramped in the frame hunched and frantic throwing himself off balance to get back to the groove he found before. Just as he is on the verge of finding that grove again, Delmond is interrupted by a knock at the door. I wish I could adequately describe what Rob Brown is up to physically as an actor here. All I can come up with is that it looks like his body is battling his brain for control. His body is lurching toward the record player while his head is being pulled towards the door. It’s something you have to see for yourself. Knocking at the door is Delmond’s New York girlfriend Jill (Danai Gurira). She walks into the apartment and turns the music down. Her interruption sets up the love quadrangle of their next scene.
We are now at a slick New York nightclub. The camera mimics the slow tilt from the earlier. This time the camera reveals a composed Delmond politely listening to his band mate finish a solo. While the solo sounds fine; there is something missing. We long for the frantic energy of the previous scene. Enter Janette (Kim Dickenson). Delmond first met Janette, a fellow New Orleans native, at a New York sports bar a few days earlier when he invited her to come see him perform at the club. She breezes into the club and upon spotting Delmond, her face lights up with flirtatious possibility. As she sits down at the bar her anticipation raises the energy of the scene. A trumpet solo scores this mood shift and as the camera cuts back to the stage we realize it is Delmond playing. His energy hasn`t changed and as the camera cuts between an interested Janette and an apathetic Delmond, the imbalance creates a strange tension. At the end of the solo Janette gives a polite “whoo” of encouragement and Delmond is frozen momentarily. His body again seems to be in conflict with his brain. After a moment he explains, “For the past couple months, I`ve been chasing something around in my head…and it`s been outrunning my ass”. He tells his band to follow him, “or die trying”. He closes his eyes as he launches into play Jelly Roll Morton’s Milneburg Joys. As he begins to sink into the song, the camera cuts quickly to Jill who we now realize is also in the club. The tight shot of her amused expression showing hints of concern threatens the momentum that the song is reaching for. The cut back to Delmond is a relief. We want the song to continue because it hints at the peace Delmond has been searching for. More relief comes as the camera pans to his band mates who are relaxing into the music. Next the camera finds Janette who is given much more room in her frame than Jill. Her face is luminescent as she sways. Cut back to Jill who pulls her eyes away from the stage, shaking her head and taking on the tension that Delmond is shedding. The camera moves away fluidly and the music swells. At the height of the music’s crescendo Delmond drops his trumpet and sings for the first time in the series. This time an authentic “yaaaa” escapes from Janette. When the camera finds Delmond again he is now fully emerged in the music. The tension has fully melted from his face and his body moves freely. Janette jumps up, grabs a white napkin and sashays to the beat. Cut back to Jill, who is laughing at Janette’s display. She realizes she has lost Delmond, not to Janette but to New Orleans. Delmond is now free as the conflict of past and present has momentarily been eased in this fusion of classic and modern jazz.
To be able to show this internal conflict physically playing out over this characters mind and body is an amazing feat of acting, direction and writing. Simon and Overmyer do not bog their story down with exposition; you discover things as their characters do. You just have to pay attention.
Treme Season 3 continues on Sun., Sept. 30 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO