Emmy (and other) Award-winning filmmaker Amy Schatz has spent her life thinking about kids — working with them, hearing their views of the world around them, making movies for and about them. So Schatz, who grew up outside Philadelphia, was particularly disturbed to learn about the ongoing mental health crisis among young people in America, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic — and especially in cities, where violence and poverty continuously compound already fraying psyches.
“I’ve made films about hard topics like the Holocaust, 9/11, endangered animals, and gun violence with kids,” Schatz says. “This was another difficult subject I wanted to take on. And then I found a story in Philadelphia that just went straight to the heart.”
That story, by Jessica Blatt Press in The Citizen, was about Hill-Freedman World Academy’s music technology program, a mandatory class for all 10th graders that teaches songwriting, music recording and performance. The Hill-Freedman singers, who perform every year at The Citizen’s Ideas We Should Steal Festival (this year on November 17), have released six albums in as many years, under the direction of teacher Ezechial Thurman and with support of World Cafe Live.
Now, Hill-Freedman’s music program is the subject of Schatz’s new short documentary, Stand Up & Shout: Songs From a Philly High School, which was executive produced by musician John Legend and his partners in Get Lifted Film Co, Philly area natives Ty Stiklorious and Mike Jackson. The film will be released on HBO on November 7.
Growing Up Black
The movie follows the Hill-Freedman students over the course of last school year, as they write and produce their new album, Growing Up Black, available now on SoundCloud. Along the way, the students go from being shy and unsure about making music, to confident and collaborative, ultimately creating a beautiful album of inspiring songs from their hearts. (This line, repeated over and over, from the track Stand Up & Shout should be a mantra for every teenager: “Things can be tough / It’s ok, just find your way.”)
“We saw the transformative power of music, right in front of us, and that was so stunning,” Schatz says. “I was really surprised at the community that developed, the kindness of the kids in the room, how supportive they were of each other. When you think of teenagers, you often don’t think of them being there for each other. And that was really quite beautiful.”
Stand Up & Shout debuted at the Philadelphia Film Festival a couple weeks ago, followed by a performance by the Hill-Freedman singers and Legend — just a few blocks away from Rittenhouse Square, where Mike Jackson recalls helping Legend, then a Penn student known as John Roger Stephens, set up a piano for one of his earliest public performances in the late 90s. “That was a complete full circle moment,” Jackson says. “We started out hustling through the streets of Philly. That’s how far we’ve traveled.”
Jackson and Stiklorius both attended Friends Central School on City Avenue; Jackson graduated high school from Lower Merion, and Stiklorius also graduated from Penn. With Legend, they formed Get Lifted Film Co. — best known for producing the Oscar-winning La La Land — in 2012.
Their Philly roots are not incidental to their joining forces with Schatz to make Stand Up & Shout, Get Lifted’s first short film and first set in Philadelphia. “There’s a really soft place in my heart for Philadelphia, and Philly music, and we love the idea of supporting music education in schools,” Jackson says. “But outside of that, I look at this film as a love letter to dreams and opportunity for Black and Brown kids in the inner city.”
Kids deserve music education
Jackson, who is Black, grew up on the Main Line, where he learned early on to appreciate his privilege. As an “obnoxious and entitled” adolescent, Jackson recalls, he spent some weeks insisting his parents get a pool, like some of his friends had. One day, his parents put him in the car, and started driving — through his plush green neighborhood, across the city line, through increasingly struggling neighborhoods, until they pulled over in North Philly and told him to get out. “There were all these folks who look like me sitting on stoops or walking around,” Jackson says. “And although I didn’t look like Carlton [from Fresh Prince of Bel Air], I felt like Carlton the minute I stepped out of the car. I remember that lesson to this day: You have a damn good life, you need to appreciate the things that you have, and not worry about the things that you don’t.”
Jackson’s advantages included, at his well-resourced schools, robust arts and music education — something that Philadelphia high schools often lack. Stand Up & Shout makes the case that the mostly Black, almost entirely economically-disadvantaged student body at Hill-Freedman not only deserves music education, but that creating music can impart lessons that will serve them no matter what their post-high school life brings: hard work, teamwork, resiliency, creative thinking, confidence.
“These kids and their mentors had to work hard to create an opportunity,” Jackson says. “Getting inside of the program and showing it from the kids point of view, the mentors point of view, seeing the parents react to the work that their children are doing, all of that fosters this joyous, uplifting kind of emotion.”
In addition to producing the film, Get Lifted will donate $100,000 to Hill-Freedman’s music technology program through a Greenwich International Film Festival fundraiser gala on November 9 honoring Legend, Jackson and Stiklorius. That means, at least for the near future, more albums from Hill-Freedman Records, and more of what one of the students, Jaden, says near the end of the film: “What music does is it brings people together.”
Stand Up & Shout premieres on HBO on Monday, November 7, 2023, at 9pm, then stream on HBOMax.
MORE ON PHILADELPHIA MUSICCourtesy HBO