November 07, 2023
A documentary premiering Tuesday on HBO takes viewers inside the halls of a Philadelphia high school where music education isn't just encouraged — it's required.
All sophomores at Hill-Freedman World Academy, an International Baccalaureate school located at 1100 E. Mt. Pleasant Ave., must take a music technology class where they write, produce and record their own songs. The end result is an album released on Soundcloud for the entire world to stream. Hill-Freedman Records dropped its first project in 2017 and has since produced five more, the most recent of which topped out at 34 tracks. The making of that album, "Growing Up Black," is documented in the new movie "Stand Up & Shout: Songs From a Philly High School" debuting at 9 p.m. on HBO.
"Stand Up & Shout" focuses on a few of the students who contributed to the album and their trio of teaching artists: Grammy-nominated musician Kristal Oliver, composer and conductor Andrew Lipke and self-described "vocussionist" Bethlehem Roberson. The cameras began rolling at the beginning of the creative process, when the students are encouraged to write whatever comes to mind, and continued rolling through the end, when the finished songs were debuted at a school concert. On top of that, music videos were made for the documentary.
Besides teachers and students, "Stand Up & Shout" is stacked with Philadelphia creatives. Director Amy Schatz is a Philly native, as are executive producers Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius, who run Get Lifted Film Co. with an adopted son of the city, John Legend. The EGOT-winning musician attended college at the University of Pennsylvania and played open mics and small shows around Philly early in his career.
"If you look at the history of Philadelphia and look at Gamble and Huff, you look at Patti LaBelle and places like Sigma Sound Studios, Philly's always been a real epicenter for music," Jackson said. "I think the idea of nurturing these young voices and songwriters and producers in the spirit of what Philadelphia has been, musically, was the perfect synergy for us to get involved. Because this screams Philly. It has Philly attitude."
The film was a pandemic project, conceived in December 2021. At the time, Schatz had recently learned about the music program at Hill-Freedman World Academy, which struck her as unique and unusual. She also was thinking about the U.S. Surgeon General's warning on youth mental health, which pointed to "alarming increases" in depression, anxiety and other illnesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schatz, a longtime documentarian of kids and teens, wanted to know how they were doing. So she and her crew went into the classroom in the new year, when the pandemic's presence was still felt. A mask mandate remained in effect throughout the School District of Philadelphia in the first months of 2022, when filming began.
"With a documentary, you never really know where the journey's gonna take you," Schatz said. "And it felt like magic. It felt like not only were we seeing a recovery in some sense from what the kids had been through, but also this incredible sense of community and joy emerged right before our eyes."
Over the course of the film, viewers see shy students, including a new kid in school, write and perform original songs. They also catch glimpses of the teens' lives outside of school and their personalities through interviews. In one memorable scene, the sophomores share their favorite musicians, from J. Cole to Henry Mancini, the composer of the original "Pink Panther" theme. A student is quick to note who Mancini is before playing the song on his phone.
In a Q&A following the movie's Oct. 20 debut at the Philadelphia Film Festival, Legend said he hoped people would see the life skills that music education lends students, from leadership to collaboration. The singer lamented frequent cuts to arts programming, especially at "schools with less resources, often serving Black and brown kids."
"I want to make sure that everybody who's in control of how our schools are funded just remembers that it's not all about test scores and the core subjects," he continued. "Arts and music need to be part of that core and whenever there are budget cuts, whenever there are prioritization discussions being had, oftentimes music gets cut first, arts get cut first. I just want us to realize this is critical. This is part of the core of their education and their upbringing and just unlocking who they are inside."