Monday, February 29, 2016

Of Mind and Music: A NOLA Street Musician’s Tale

In many respects, the case of Una Vida (“the Queen of Royal Street”) is not so different from those chronicled in the documentary Alive Inside. Although she suffers from Alzheimer’s, music seems to awaken her memories and offers a means to relate to the outside world, at least to some extent. However, the standards she sings are also intertwined in her head with a profound trauma from decades past. A grieving neuroscientist will be drawn to the vocalist and her blues guitarist protector in Richie Adams’ Of Mind and Music, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Much like Dr. Nicholas Bazan, the author of the film’s source novel, Dr. Alvaro Cruz is an Argentine polyglot neuroscientist specializing in Alzheimer’s. He is also a New Orleanian through and through when it comes to music and cuisine. Plagued with guilt when his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother dies while he is attending an international conference, he seeks solace in the muffaletttas of the Central Avenue Grocery and the sounds of Frenchmen Street. At such old school NOLA locales, he regularly encounters Una Vida and her guitar accompanist, Stompleg. He can tell she suffers from some form of neurological dementia, but the lyrics of the “gold old good ones” keep her somewhat tethered and focused.

Dr. Cruz quickly develops an easy rapport with Stompleg and Una Vida finds him pleasant enough, even though she can’t necessarily remember him from one day to the next. However, her junkie former minder Jessica is instantly suspicious of the doctor and jealous of the connection he might be slowly forging with the withdrawn Una Vida. Nevertheless, she will need his help when Stompleg is accepted by an out-of-state assisted living residency for legit blues artists.

Clearly, Mind means well so ardently it practically aches with good intentions. Fortunately, it also has an intimate familiarity with New Orleans, which helps ground the picture and gives it the ring of authenticity. The somewhat pivot role played by the Louisiana Music Factory earns it multiple bonus points. You could actually go to a lot of the locations in Mind—in fact, you really should.

Although he is probably still best known for playing Bucho in Desperado and Ramon Salazar in 24, Portuguese-born Joaquim de Almeida is wonderfully earthy as Dr. Cruz. Quantico’s Aunjanue Ellis is mostly convincing and often quite compelling as the tragic Una Vida, but it is Bill Cobbs who really lowers the emotional boom as Stompleg. Frankly, he does award-worthy work, but he gets a key assist from John Fohl, who dubs Stompleg’s blues guitar. Their rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” heard over the closing credits is eerily haunting. Similarly, Mykia Jovan supplies the deeply soulful vocals of Una Vida. Unfortunately, Sharon Lawrence (from NYPD Blue) is mainly stuck watching the drama from the sidelines as Cruz’s eternally patient wife Angela.

Strangely, the incidental soundtrack is not very jazz or blues, but the inclusion of bandoneon and clarinet gives it a touch of Louisiana flavoring, while also evoking Dr. Cruz’s Argentine roots. Of course, you cannot get anymore legit than Kermit Ruffins and Jon Cleary who briefly appear as themselves. While Adams does not always skirt every potentially melodramatic pitfall cleanly, the cast and the music always propel the film forward. Recommended as a valentine to the Crescent City and a realistic portrayal of the challenges of Alzheimer’s, Of Mind and Music opens this Friday (3/4) at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles.