Playing for Change is a musical journey of discovery that celebrates the freedom and lives of street musicians existing in America today. Focusing on the three cities of Los Angeles, New Orleans & New York, Playing for Change captures an array of musical styles and human moments that would otherwise slip through the cracks of society.
PLAYING FOR CHANGE - A CINEMATIC DISCOVERY OF STREET MUSIC
Simply put, Playing for Change is a documentary about American street musicains.
That being said, I would hasten to add that some works cannot be "simply put,"
that they transcend such artificial categorizations to become something
universal, something that speaks to the collective soul.
Playing for Change is such a work.
This is not a gritty documentary focusing on the hardships of making a living on
the streets rather, it is a colorful celebration of what is at the core of the
American dream: the pursuit of happiness. Directed by Mark Johnson and Jonathan
Walls, Playing for Change examines a central, but too often dismissed, aspect of
American culture the music of the streets.
And it does so admirably. Linked by the motif of a single groove (a percussion
riff laid down by a cajone (a sort of Brazilian steel drum), the film is part
road trip, part slice-of-life vignette documentary and all music. It begins
innocouously enough, with a folksy singer named Lily Holbrook playing on a
street corner in Santa Monica, and that sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Immediately, any preconceptions we may have had about street musicians as
homeless panhandlers are dispelled. Instead, we are presented with a
well-scrubbed, articulate young woman who has taken to performing on the streets
as a means of overcoming her insecurities, and to sell a few CDs in the process.
Deeper into Los Angeles, we're introduced to the Carribean group Los Penginos,
and it is here that the plot, such as it is, of Playing for Change is set. After
the cajone beat is recorded, the theme of the movie becomes a quest to travel
cross country to make a jam that will eventually become the movie's centerpiece
song, "Playing for Change Blues."
Filmed in 2003 (but only released to DVD last April), the film moves from
southern California to a pre-Katrina New Orleans, where street musicians abound
in genres from Dixieland to bluegrass. It is here that Playing for Change is
most poignant, if only in retrospect. There are references from one musician to
Mayor Nagin wanting to "clean up" Jackson Square to make way for a more modern
New Orleans. But more importantly, there is the music, the vibrancy of diverse
styles all coming together in a relatively small area in a way that may never
happen again. A flying V blues riff is laid over the beat, and a slide guitar
over that, before the film leaves the Big Easy.
The pace becomes more frenetic as the locale transitions to NewYork and more
eclectic, as one might expect. Here, the musicians range from an a capella
doo-wop band called the Inspirations to the sci-fi subway sounds of Simon 7 to
old school blues and anything and everything in between. And it is here that a
blind singer named Robert Bradley lays over the vocal track for "Playing for
It's a beautiful, powerful climax to the film, and filmed exquisitely, with the
various musicians playing their various parts in their various locales, but
united by the common thread of the groove, the groove of the universal language
Playing for Change serves not only as a look at an unapologetic musical
lifestyle, but as a metaphor for life itself. These are the real, if unsung,
PLEASE NOTE: PLAYING FOR CHANGE: PEACE THROUGH MUSIC is the second film directed
by Mark Johnson and Jonathan Walls. Their previous film, titled PLAYING FOR
CHANGE: A CINEMATIC DISCOVERY OF STREET MUSIC was released in 2005.