Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story
(US, 2021, 95 min.)
Dir. Frank Marshall & Ryan Suffern
Making a festival documentary successful is as easy as making a souffle rise to perfection. The ingredients are there but few directors, just like only a handful of chefs, can turn what seems simple into a work worth admiring—and devouring. The veteran producers and directors Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern haven’t quite cooked up a perfect dish with their new film about New Orleans’ jazz festival, but it doesn’t fall flat.
Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story isn’t really about jazz any more than is Montreal’s similarly titled festival. Both cities host wildly successful festivals, but jazz has become a sexy brand for each, representing any kind of roots music, from funk to soul to blues to hip hop and more while showing off the good times to be had in their legendary locales. While that’s fine for Montreal, New Orleans’ history is intrinsically tied to jazz so the film and the festival pivot to acknowledge the music from time to time while playing up the big stars who show up to grace the main stages: Katy Perry, Jimmy Buffet, Pitbull and Bruce Springsteen. Though they’re hardly jazz figures, their presence helps to explain why a festival on a fairground three miles away from New Orleans’ legendary French Quarter can attract audiences of 100,000 people on its peak days.
Marshall and Suffern’s doc doesn’t shy away from the diversity of the music at the festival, placing it within New Orleans’ unique history as a city that offered a home for displaced Acadians from Canada, Indigenous people and African-Americans after the end of slavery. There is no other place like New Orleans in the U.S. and the music, food, traditions and culture reflects that beautiful multiplicity.
Jazz Fest goes away from its main subject, the music, to show off the amazing food in the city: there are mouth-watering scenes of people cooking and eating jambalaya, gumbo, pork cracklin’, beignets, crawfish and even alligator. Venturing into the streets, we see marching bands—it seems every high school has one–and hear about the funerals that celebrate the lives of the recently departed as they are accompanied to the cemetery for their last trip though the city. The film takes a rare journey to the swamps where we see and hear Marc Savoy’s traditional Cajun music before returning to the Fest stage to embrace Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers with their high-octane rocking sounds.
What about the Jazz Fest itself? The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was started when prominent members of the city approached George Wein, the founder of the legendary Newport Jazz Festival, to create a major event in the traditional home of the music. That was more than 50 years ago; in fact, the film celebrates the anniversary, which took place just before COVID closed every public extravaganza for two years. Archival footage shows Mahalia Jackson playfully introducing Wein to an eager throng of New Orleans fans, ready to embrace the first festival. That scene reeks of authenticity, showing the genuine affection the people of the city have for the music. That love has continued whether it be gospel—and there’s lots of it in the film—or blues, and we hear briefly from the great B.B. King, or the New Orleans roots piano music of Professor Longhair or classic r’n’b as performed by the brilliant vocalist Al Green singing “Let’s Stay Together.”
Jazz Fest saves its big punch for an emotional section near the end, with the tale of the festival coming together quickly after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, showing the world that New Orleans can never be defeated. Then we see Bruce Springsteen singing “My City of Ruins,” in a heartfelt tribute to New Orleans at a concert that poignant, passionate week getting the crowd responding to the lines “With these hands, I pray, Lord, come on and Rise Up.”
You can’t make that kind of story up: that’s the glory of documentary. Jazz Fest tells us about a festival and a city that has what it takes to survive COVID. It’s an exuberant film about a culture and a music that is worth celebrating.
Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on June 3.