A Cautionary (and Funky) Tale
Professor Longhair: Rugged & Funky is Humanities Documentary Film of the Year
During the opening montage of director Joshua Bagnall’s Professor Longhair: Rugged & Funky, a new documentary film about the life and work of the groundbreaking New Orleans musician born Henry Roeland Byrd, an off-screen interview subject describes Byrd as “the least famous member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The statement initially lands like a compliment, praise for a man who did not have to become a household name in order to forever change the DNA of pop music.
By the conclusion of the seventy-five-minute film, the statement feels less like praise and more like an indictment of the music industry that allowed Professor Longhair to go under-recognized and under-compensated during his lifetime.
Bagnall spent the first half of his career in the music industry, and he is familiar with bad contracts, unscrupulous managers, and the physical toll of life on tour. This perspective makes him uniquely well-equipped for the task of bringing Byrd’s life to the screen.
“I’ve seen the music industry do terrible things to artists with my own eyes,” Bagnall said. “It chews people up, and it doesn’t care what it leaves behind.”
Professor Longhair: Rugged & Funky—which premiered during the 2020 New Orleans Film Festival—is propelled by entertaining and insightful interviews with Byrd’s contemporaries from the New Orleans music scene. Subjects include Allen Toussaint, George Porter Jr., Dr. John, and Henry Butler. It is striking how many of Bagnall’s interview subjects have passed away during the six years that it has taken to complete the film.
“It’s a tragedy how many of these great legends we are losing,” Bagnall said. “I was in the process of planning my final interview with Allen Toussaint when I learned that he had passed. He was an incredible human being.”
Toussaint’s interviews give the film buoyancy. By turns poetic (“His music sounds so deliberate, so final. It sounds like: ‘Take that! Here I am.’”) and humorous (“He played with so much aggression that it might spook you out.”), Toussaint’s frequent appearances in the film prevent it from becoming a monotonous parade of talking heads.
Aided by the great work of editors Yan Miles and Tom Roche, Bagnall keeps the film lean and fast-paced without sacrificing its intimate, conversational tone. The most emotionally impactful moments belong to Byrd’s daughter, Pat, whose gaze practically burns a hole in the screen. Her commitment to the legacy of her late father is matched by her anger with those who shortchanged him throughout his career. A poignant sequence of the film explores the cultural impact of Professor Longhair’s Carnival season classic “Big Chief,” then reveals how little money the artist earned from its success.
Bagnall encourages anyone who’d like to see the film to follow the Fish-Pot Studios Facebook page, where he will share news of when and how the public can view it. With any luck, Professor Longhair: Rugged & Funky will find the audience it deserves, and someone else can be the “least famous person in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame” for a change.
Chris Jay is a freelance writer based in Shreveport, where he publishes the local food and drink newsletter Stuffed & Busted. He and his wife, Sara Hebert, produce All Y’all, a podcast and live storytelling event series.