As free and breezy as the artists it observes, “Playing for Change” amiably profiles street musicians in L.A. (the home base for filmmakers Mark Johnson and Jonathan Walls), New Orleans and New York, while charmingly selecting players around the country for a mix of the pic’s title tune. Short feature’s best way to draw a crowd is at fests, as an entertaining respite between heftier programming.
Trek starts on L.A.’s musician-rich Venice Boardwalk and Santa Monica Promenade, where young jazzers like Chantz Powell revive Louis Armstrong, and Latin American quintet Los Pinguos delivers sizzling free concerts. The Big Easy is so thick with street players they virtually bump into each other, with Goat Dirt Road Band making a strong impression, as does Bradford Reed in Gotham, strumming his own invented instrument made of wires and pencils. Pic is a group portrait of serious musicians who claim to work the streets because they want to. And given a music marketplace that remains frustratingly closed to the broad stylistic range repped here, the players make a convincing case.