By Ben Collins
David Simon has become famous for creating the type of television that make viewers want to breath inside his detail-heavy landscapes — even if those settings (like his gritty but all-to-real Baltimore streets in “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire”) tend to get bloody and gruesome pretty frequently.
Simon’s new show “Treme” (named after the New Orleans neighborhood where most of the action takes place) debuted on HBO with an 80-minute premiere on Sunday night (April 11), and its dedication to those inviting hues is no different. It’s about a post-Katrina New Orleans (a title card at the top of the show reads “Three Months After”), and there are full five minute blocks of footage that show characters wading through wrecked houses and their own belongings, now unrecognizable by all the flood damage. But the there’s something about it all that makes you want to be there regardless, and a lot of it has to do with Simon’s commitment to music.
Every character on “Treme” has some tie to the music culture that runs even deeper than flood waters. Some are directly involved: Davis (Steve Zahn) is a DJ for a locals-approved independent radio station, Antoine (Wendell Pierce) hops from jazz funeral to jazz funeral as a second line trombonist who brings in only enough money to make it to his next gig and iconic trumpet player Kermit Ruffins appears as himself. Those who aren’t wielding a brass instrument — like John Goodman’s activist character Creighton — are throwing journalists’ microphones into rivers in defense of the culture.
Simply put: Music runs the show. That’s why we’re breaking down the songs that appear in the show to try to delve even deeper into Simon’s already-rich characters.
“It’s All Over Now” by Bobby and Shirley Womack
Just seconds into the premiere, following only a brief conversation about the minutiae of having two funerals in one day, a second line emerges out of a crowded room to play “It’s All Over Now” (a song made most famous by the Rolling Stones on their 1964 album 12 X 5 but covered by dozens of artists).
Yep, it happens this quickly. The first thing we see is the aftermath of death, and the second thing we see is the resiliency of community. Before we know it, the entire band is huddled, drinking beer in Antoine’s ex-wife’s bar. “I used to love her/ But it’s all over now,” they holler, and hold street signs to bang on with drum sticks as percussion instruments. It’s just that curt.
There’s then a cut away to Janette (Kim Dickens), a restaurant owner somewhere across town, away from the parade. She’s told by a line cook a waitress won’t be able to come in.
Cook: “Fender bender on Canal. Says she was distracted.”
Janette: “We’re all distracted.”
Cook: “How’s your house?”
Janette: “Don’t ask me about my house.”
Again, it’s just that curt. As the rest of the episode unfolds, that scene is replayed over and over again by multiple characters. There’s a certain bond between Katrina survivors that brings them together, but the weight of the disaster (and their own personal problems) continues to threaten to tear them apart.
“Treme Song” by John Boutté
The theme song for “Treme” will go down in history as one of the all-time greats, and the credit sequence is instantly memorable (not unlike the similarly-great intros to other HBO shows like “The Sopranos” and “True Blood”). The montage contains the only purely non-fictional shots on the show, taken shortly after the hurricane when most of New Orleans was still under water. They’re real portraits of the walls that have had the wallpaper peeled away, pans of abandoned houses, streets flooded four-feet high and the swearing in of FEMA employees. It’s contrasted by the lyrics, which highlight the distance between the fantasy version of the city (the one where there are nothing but parades, beer and jambalaya) and the reality (where devastation has threatened to completely undo “a city that lives in the imagination of the world,” as Goodman’s Creighton puts it).
“I’m going crazy/ We’re jumping and having fun.” Or, there was just a disaster here, yes, but is that any reason to put down your trumpet?
“Shake Ya Ass” by Mystikal
Davis lives in a house that appears to be completely unaffected by Hurricane Katrina. In one of his many rants (Simon appears to have channeled most of the anger on the show into Davis and Creighton), he is established as a down-on-his-luck DJ who runs the overnight shift at an independent radio station. He doesn’t like the traditional image of New Orleans music (he bristles at the idea of plugging a compilation CD of traditional jazz and Cajun music on the air) and may or may not have jammed with the Rebirth Brass Band.
He’s a man of two worlds, but he makes his allegiance clear. While his neighbors wear wide-brimmed straw hats and appear to be gardening, Davis cranks up New Orleans rapper Mystikal (the recently-released MC who was once the king of Master P’s No Limit crew), rotates his too-big speakers out his window to face the Bob Vila disciples and lights up the butt of a blunt with a match and tweezers.
“I thought I told y’all n—as before/ Y’all n—as can’t f–k with me,” Mystikal croons in the chorus. Later, he argues that the mafia would be better equipped to run New Orleans than the U.S. government, which only drives home his core belief: He doesn’t care who authority is, he’ll hate it anyway. Like “The Wire,” “Treme” exists in a universe where social systems have clearly failed, and the struggle to see who will take over drives the drama.
The Rebirth Brass Band
The Rebirth Brass Band, playing an unrecognizable collection of ragtag brass players, play in a bar. After their performance, they get a chance to meet an obviously-impressed Elvis Costello, who has stopped by to watch their show. Ruffins doesn’t even know who Costello is, but Davis pleads the with the band to reach out anyway.
Davis: “All you want to do is stay in New Orleans, get high and play trumpet?”
Ruffins: “Wouldn’t hurt.”
The endgame here isn’t fame. The endgame is normalcy.
“Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” by Louis Armstrong
In the background, “Miss New Orleans” plays out of Davina’s (Edwina Findley) car stereo while she is on the phone with her brother Delmond (Rob Brown). He’s touring the frigid Northeast playing trumpet, but she begs him to come back to Treme to try to talk sense into their father, who is attempting to salvage a bar he doesn’t own in order to make Mardi Gras’ Carnival happen this year, even though he’s homeless.
Davina hangs up, angry that Delmond might not come back and help, and “Miss New Orleans” lingers. “I hate that f—ing song,” she mutters, and flicks it off. There is no way anyone misses New Orleans in the state it’s in right now.
“Buona Sera” by Louis Prima
If there’s anything bad that could be said about “The Wire,” it’s that Simon may have gone to the montage well a bit too often. But the one that shows up in the middle of Sunday night’s premiere hit all the right marks, mostly because of “Buona Sera.” The chorus (“In the meantime let me tell you that I love you”) rolls smoothly over a collection of scenes that show each character’s primary love, and how good the Bayou can be when/if the recovery ever ends.
Creighton and his wife Toni (Melissa Leo) cuddle on a seat on their guiltily spotless porch. Davis wildly rocks out to “Buona Sera” from his DJ chair. Antoine and his ex-wife Ladonna feed their baby. Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) looks off into the distance at his bar, now lighted.
The images all say this: In the end, there are finally going to be moments of peace. And alcohol is going to help. A lot.
Lastly, there’s one other musical note that sticks that “Treme” hit: Silence. Music never intrudes on business, politics or the disaster itself in “Treme.” When Albert and Davina go to check on their now-destroyed house, dragging their U-Haul through the wreckage, there is absolute silence. When Creighton returns home and picks up the phone to talk to an NPR reporter about how the politics of the hurricane, his daughter’s piano-playing immediately stops.
Maybe the starkest switch — the one that has Simon hinting that silence is always for dramatic effect — is when a DJ from Davis’ radio station signs off, and switches from jazz to a Katrina-based rant. Silence is going to be deliberate in this series. When the music stops, hold your breath.