Stand Up & Shout: Songs From a Philly High School, the new documentary from HBO and John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Co., follows students from Philadelphia public high school Hill-Freedman World Academy as they spend their sophomore year in a music class creating an album featuring original songs they've all personally written, composed, produced and sang.
The film, directed by Emmy and Peabody winner Amy Schatz (We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest and In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11), shows the students returning to the classroom for the first time in two years due to the COVID pandemic. They embark on the experience unsure of what to expect and all end up creating expressive, encouraging and emotive music.
Local award-winning musicians Kristal "Tytewriter" Oliver, Andrew Lipke and Bethlehem Roberson, along with program director and music technology teacher Ezechial Thurman joined the 10th graders as both instructors and collaborators.
"First of all, it's going to pull on your heartstrings. It pulled on mine," Oliver, who co-wrote Danity Kane's "Showstopper," tells Yahoo Entertainment of the documentary. "You can expect to laugh, you can expect to cry and you can expect to watch these students come to life right before your eyes. You get to watch them just blossom like a flower right in front of you."
Danielle Hodges, Adrian Guzman, Kemet Kittrell and Santee Snaith who, at the time of filming, were 10th graders unfamiliar with a high school environment since they were learning remotely during the peak of the pandemic. Now seniors, they're excited for the project to finally be here.
"It started off as a ninth grade class, but that was virtual, so the magic really happened in 10th grade," Kittrell tells Yahoo Entertainment.
"We were back from quarantine from COVID-19 and it was kind of difficult," says Guzman, "I believe that doing this album was a little push to feel a little bit more regular."
"I think that is going to show the power of what it is that we do in these classrooms, to see the transformations that take place," Oliver says. "I think the transformations are going to be what really just blows people's minds."
Making music 101
Oliver, who has worked with major artists like Diddy, Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Jessie J and Estelle, says it was important to help the students not "overthink the process" and to remind them to just "let it flow out" in order to avoid stifling their own creativity.
"I would focus on making sure the students understand how to write their songs, what a song is, what a songwriter does, how do you use concepts, how to use titles. Most importantly: How do you take what's inside of you and get it out without restricting yourself? How do you get the truest form of yourself out?" Oliver explains of her priorities as a teacher.
She says her colleague Lipke focused on the music production and helping the students find different keys and chords, while Roberson focused on rhythm with the class. "She would kind of show the kids how to kind of get out of your body and like tempo beat out and just kind of feel the flow."
The students found themselves working both collaboratively and independently throughout the music-making process.
"First, we had to make a group, which was like a label, basically. Each student basically was in their own label. With me, I was in Hush Records, that's what my group was called," Snaith tells Yahoo Entertainment. "[Within the group,] each person had to do their own thing. Like one of our classmates was the beat maker. Another one was the camera person. I was basically a songwriter. Then I turned into the person actually performing."
“We had executive producers, beatmakers, songwriters and lyricists, and some people sang the songs, some people didn't," says Hodges. "Like for me, I was the executive producer, the photographer and [one of] the songwriters, so I did all those three [jobs]."
Did somebody say John Legend?
Even though Legend wasn't directly involved in the music creation or the filming, it was exciting for those involved to learn he was executive producing the project.
"As it kept going on, there [would] be little whisperings… and then we found out about John Legend, like after the whole thing was done and I was like, 'Wait, what?'" says Oliver. "There were whispers like there's gonna be a really special executive producer on this project, but we didn't know anything because they didn't want the word spilling out."
The teachers and some of the students did finally get to meet Legend in person at the Stand Up & Shout premiere.
"We met recently at the world premiere, and I did meet [documentary producer] Mike Jackson beforehand. Mike Jackson came over to the school, met the students, did some interviews with them, some of the students sang for Mike Jackson, who is John's partner with Get Lifted," Oliver recalls.
"When I found out [about John Legend], I was amazed because somebody that big will focus on a small school like this, and Philly especially," Hodges says.
"Once I heard that John Legend was helping us out and stuff like that, it was really crazy to me because I really admire him. I love all his songs," she adds. "And then Mike Jackson, he's the one that did that Christmas movie, Jingle Jangle, and I really liked that one."
Of the students who Yahoo interviewed, only Guzman plans to pursue music in the future, but they all say they've gained an enlightening and uplifting experience many others could only dream of.
Snaith jokes that he's a one-hit wonder because he has no music-related aspirations post Stand Up & Shout, but "if anyone says 'Hey, can you help me with writing a lyric, help me out with something music related?' Hey, I don't mind helping out, but for the long run, I'm not really pursuing music for the long run," he says. "It was a nice experience to get in."
While Oliver is no longer teaching, instead continuing her solo career as a writer and artist, she's proud of her work at Hill-Freedman and excited for people to see her passing on her passion for music and educating the next generation.
"My goal is never to pull anyone into the music industry or into songwriting unless they express that desire to me, you know, then I can probably mentor them outside of school," she says, "but my goal is always to give students what I didn't have when I was that young and what I didn't have was confidence in myself."
Stand Up & Shout: Songs From a Philly High School is currently streaming on Max.