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Eleven-year-old Jaron "Bear" Williams practices trumpet before marching in his first Mardi Gras season. The Whole Gritty City follows young student marching bands as they prepare for coveted spots in the New Orleans parade. (Courtesy of CBS)

In 'Whole Gritty City,' Marching Bands Vie For Coveted Mardi Gras Spots

Feb 13, 2014 (Fresh Air)

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There are times when television really does try to put its best foot forward — promoting a new fall season, for example. But it's an almost twisted rule of TV that sometimes, the better a television offering is, the more likely it is to be shown when even the network presenting it doesn't think many people will be watching.

That's why CBS, each year, televises The Kennedy Center Honors during the dead week between Christmas and New Year's. It wants the prestige of showing one of the best variety specials of the year — mixing opera and pop music, and stars from both film and television — but doesn't want to risk low ratings at a more competitive time. Similarly, that's also why CBS, this weekend, presents an uncharacteristically sensitive, intelligent and inspirational edition of its 48 Hours series. It's opposite NBC's ratings-hogging coverage of the Winter Olympics — so why not?

Why not indeed? 48 Hours Presents: The Whole Gritty City is a documentary in the Fred Wiseman mold. The film, by Richard Barber and Andre Lambertson, has no narration — it just focuses on a specific subject for a lengthy amount of time, and lets the cameras record whatever happens. And then, all that raw footage is edited. The only scene-setting comes courtesy of Wynton Marsalis, who appears at the beginning, and in a few more spots during the program, to explain the concept, the context — and the stakes.

"New Orleans buries too many of its young," says Marsalis, who was born and raised in New Orleans.

The opening scene of The Whole Gritty City turns out to be a flash-forward. We see, and hear, a very large group of young people playing band instruments outdoors, as part of a funeral service. They're playing, sometimes, with more volume and emotion than precision, a few of them wiping tears away as they blow their horns.

We return to this scene at the end of the documentary. By then, we know a lot more about these local bands, and how much music means to the kids, and how they even inspire each other.

One kid, an amazingly gifted young preteen, talks about how playing the trumpet is 25 percent of his life. Then, holding a video camera, he takes us on a tour of some of the other 75 percent — including a street he runs down every day on his way to grade school, petrified because, he says, "it has guns." We get to know the teachers, and some of the members, of three different bands.

Death is a big part of this New Orleans story — something the kids face every day, and sometimes confront directly. One of the band members becomes the innocent victim of a shooting. He had thought enough about his own mortality to ask his band teacher that, in the event of his death, he wanted all the local youth bands to join together to play at his funeral. That's what they're doing at the start of The Whole Gritty City, and again at the end. And it's what we see and hear in between that make those bookends so memorable.

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