John Legend is no stranger to documentaries. Last month, he and his Get Lifted Films’ co-founders Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius announced that they would serve as executive producers on Oscar-nominated Waad Al-Kateab’s latest docu “We Dare to Dream.”
This month, Legend is behind HBO Documentary Films’ “Stand Up & Shout: Songs From a Philly High School.” About an annual music program in the city’s Hill-Freedman World Academy, the 54-minute docu features 10th-grade students learning to write, compose, produce, and perform original songs. Together with local musicians, the students pitch concepts, work out arrangements, and eventually create an album that captures the challenges they are living through and the joy music brings to their respective lives.
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Director Amy Schatz spent one school year following a group of students from the program as they came up with song ideas, went through the recording process, and release their collaborative album. Legend, Jackson and Stiklorius, who have a first-look feature documentary deal with HBO, joined the project as executive producers after Schatz began filming.
“I really believe in the importance of music and education and the importance of arts and education,” says Legend. “Often, those programs are the first things to get cut when people make prioritization decisions about where money can go in the school district. So we wanted this film to be a real statement about the value of these types of programs in schools. Just seeing the kids collaborate with each other, work on a project together, and get so excited to tell their own stories was exciting. We think programs (like this one) are really a valuable part of their education. Programs like these shouldn’t be cut or deprioritized just because it’s not basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.”
Schatz became interested in the music program at Hill-Freedman, a public magnet school, after reading a 2022 story in Philadelphia’s Chalkbeat.
“I had been in conversation with HBO about how to take a look at the pandemic and its effect on kids,” Schatz says. “When I found this story, it went straight to the heart. I thought that this was a way to look at the subject and really hear from a group of kids.”
The director explains that after months of filming, she showed HBO and Get Lifted what she had captured on camera.
“One of the incredible things that happened during the course of the year when I was filming was this incredible transformation that took place,” she says. “It was a story about this group of kids coming back after the pandemic and creating an album of songs. but it also became a story that charted their recovery and their healing.”
After seeing the footage HBO and Get Lifted partnered with Schatz on the project.
In October, Legend attended the docu’s world premiere at the 32nd annual Philadelphia Film Festival in Center City, where he performed a version of “Stand Up & Shout” with subjects from the film.
“It was so fun performing with them,” says Legend. “A couple of them were like, “Hey, can you get me on ‘The Voice?’ ‘Hey, can you get me a record deal? Are you going to sign me?’ I like the ambition. Why not shoot your shot?”
“Stand Up & Shout: Songs From a Philly High School” is the latest doc Get Lifted Films has supported in recent years. The company’s nonfiction credits include: “Citizen Ashe,” “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children,” “Loudmouth” about Al Sharpton, and most recently W. Kamau Bell’s “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed.”
The throughline that connects their docu projects is, according to Jackson, a desire to delve further into a subject matter, whether it is well-known or not.
“We often talk about shining a light and giving something life,” says Jackson. “So even someone like Al Sharpton, who obviously doesn’t need us to give him a life, his story is still confusing to many people and not fully realized. So that’s an example of us wanting to create a platform for the reverend to fully tell his story in a way that we felt hadn’t been done before. With “1000% Me,” about biracial kids growing up, John and I are both raising biracial kids. We have a lot of friends that are product of biracial parents. So, again, it’s about shining a light on something that people talk about, but they haven’t really looked under the hood and done a deeper dive.”
Legend adds: “We care about justice. We care about making the world more empathetic and more loving. I think documentaries have a great way of helping us see each other’s humanity. They can help us to get to know each other in a way that will help us understand each other better and make us treat each other better.”
“Stand Up & Shout: Songs From a Philly High School” debuts on Max on Nov. 7.
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