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Reel Blues 

Flick Chick

Laissez le bon temps rouler? The good times certainly rolled for Don Sidney before Katrina hit. Beginning in 1988, the Burlington resident spent six years as production director of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. As such, he would always relocate there from January through the end of May. And the guitarist -- once with Burlington bands such as Bongo Moon -- is now associate producer of a documentary about the Crescent City's vibrant rhythm and blues scene. Make It Funky! was already scheduled to premiere in New York and Los Angeles in early September, but the Gulf Coast catastrophe gave the limited release unforeseen poignancy.

"The timing was ironic and bittersweet," says Sidney, who hopes to screen the 109-minute film at the Roxy in the near future to benefit hurricane victims.

Directed by New Orleans native Michael Murphy, Make It Funky! centers on an epic April 2004 concert at the Saenger Theater on Rampart Street that reportedly had the audience dancing in the aisles. The show features the likes of Irma Thomas, the Neville Brothers, Lloyd Price, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Bonnie Raitt and Keith Richards. That lineup also includes legendary songwriter-arranger Allen Toussaint (think "Mother-in-Law" and "Southern Nights"), with whom Sidney performed in 1989 and 1990.

"Allen's house was wiped out by Katrina," Sidney says during a telephone conversation from California. Murphy fled ahead of the storm and doesn't yet know the condition of his home. The place Sidney used to rent is three blocks from the infamous 17th Street Canal, a sort of Ground Zero in the flood.

The doc -- narrated by Art Neville -- offers interviews with notables who discuss the art form, as well as footage of streets, bars and recording studios in the Big Easy's pre-disaster days. It's a town that has generated a plethora of talent: Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Dr. John and Harry Connick, Jr., to name a few.

Two other Vermonters were on Sidney's crew: John Lord of Groton did the concert lighting, and Chris Bailey of Burlington worked as first assistant director of the film, which was shot with 16 high-definition digital video cameras.

Sidney and Murphy dreamed up the idea for Make It Funky! when they observed that the world was entranced by Louisiana's popular Cajun and zydeco cultures. They wanted to present a comprehensive history of the region's other musical traditions.

"We felt no one had really zeroed in on r&b," recalls Sidney, now 52. "We said, 'Let's narrow that vision down a bit to what New Orleans is all about.' My role was to put together all the technical aspects, rehearsals and musicians."

With a budget he estimates at close to $3 million, Sidney says Murphy even took out a second mortgage. Luckily, Sony Pictures provided some funding thanks to a personal connection with the company. Although the DVD comes out this week, a more extensive theatrical run is still a possibility.

During the 1980s Sidney went from doing audio and stage management at Hunt's, the long-defunct Burlington club, to going on the road with Leon Redbone, John Hiatt and Richard Thompson. After he accompanied those acts to the Jazz and Heritage Festival as a guest engineer in 1987, the event itself became a yearly gig for him.

"Later, I oversaw all the TV and radio production from the fest," says Sidney, who is currently managing the career of singer Rickie Lee Jones. "I've done so many things at the Superdome. I've done videos with Aaron Neville. I just immersed myself in New Orleans r&b."

At the moment, he's trying to organize an October 27 benefit in Los Angeles that might help le bon temps rouler again some day.

Weekend midnight shows at the Roxy were so successful last spring that Merrill Jarvis III, who manages his family's downtown Burlington venue, is bringing them back every Friday and Saturday night this fall. But in addition to another round of "Kung Fu Classics," he'll initiate two new programs in adjacent screening rooms from October 14 through November 12: "Horror-Sleaze" -- with titles such as Devil Fetus -- and "Cult Indies."

"For that category, I'm hoping to get things like the director's cut of Brazil," Jarvis says, referring to the nightmarish 1985 comedy by Terry Gilliam. Great choice, but it ain't no Devil Fetus.

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Susan Green

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