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After the Deluge: Costello, Toussaint Put The River in Reverse

By Tamara Krinsky

Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, featured in Matthew Buzzell's 'Putting The River In Reverse.' Photo: Jimmy Katz

When Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint found themselves performing together in a number of Hurricane Katrina benefits shortly after the storm left New Orleans native Toussaint homeless, the two legendary musicians decided to collaborate on a new album. Filmmaker Matthew Buzzell (Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew) captured the process in his short documentary Putting the River in Reverse, an inspirational look at the first major recording session in New Orleans since Katrina.

The production process was a challenge due to the lack of basic services such as hot water, and the problems of shooting in a largely empty city. Says producer Brian Gerber, "One of the biggest issues was just making sure everyone got fed. One day the café on the corner would be open and you could get sandwiches; the next day it would be closed." The owners of the recording studio, Piety Street Studios, had actually lost their house, and had set up temporary living quarters in one of the extra rooms in the studio.

A concern going into the project was walking the fine line between exploiting and white-washing the subject matter. "We shot for a day where the levees broke, to bear witness," says Gerber. "But ultimately we felt like people had seen that footage already, so we used a minimal amount of it in the film. We also wanted to be sensitive to how people would feel about us being down there with a camera."

The majority of the doc takes place in the studio, and the influence of the city can be felt in the music, which features many New Orleans musicians. "The city gave a context as to why they were playing those songs at that particular time," Gerber notes. "We went to New Orleans to finish the record so that we could send the message that the city is open for business, despite its problems."

Putting the River in Reverse premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Festival, and subsequently played the Tribeca and Maryland Film Festivals. It was released on June 6 on a combo CD/DVD with the album The River in Reverse (Verve Forecast Records, a division of Universal Music). It can also be downloaded on iTunes.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.