This review of “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” was first published March 13, 2022, after premiering at the SXSW Film Festival.
Anybody who’s been to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival could tell you that the hardest part of making a movie about the annual event, which takes up two weekends in late April and early May in the Crescent City, would have to be fitting it all in.
Jazz Fest, after all, showcases 7,000 musicians on 14 stages over eight days in a city whose homegrown music is a gumbo made up of every style and sound that came up through the Gulf of Mexico, down the Mississippi River or through the delta to the east and the swamps to the west of the city. The festival is gloriously overwhelming, an embarrassment of riches that forces you to pick and choose and be open to surprises any time the wind changes and you hear something special coming from a stage where you didn’t know you absolutely had to be.
And to put all of that into one movie, as Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern tried to do with “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story,” is a task both irresistible and impossible. As someone who has been to Jazz Fest many times, I was frustrated by “Jazz Fest” and also thrilled by it, and I recognized the frustration and the thrills as being part and parcel of the festival experience.
The invigorating documentary opened Friday, five days after the conclusion of the first Jazz Fest in three years. (The 2020 and 2021 fests were scrapped because of COVID, the first cancellations in history.) Just like at the festival, you see a lot and miss a lot in the film, and you can bask in the aura of a city where, jazz singer Gregory Porter says in the film, “The air is thick, not just with humidity. It’s thick with culture.”
“Jazz Fest” showcases New Orleans talent (the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Irma Thomas and Aaron Neville, among many others) and visiting stars (Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry and Earth, Wind and Fire … ); it has rock and gospel and blues and Cajun and zydeco and hip-hop and yes, even some jazz.
It’s got “When the Saints Go Marching In” by Louis Armstrong at the beginning and “When the Saints Go Marching In” by Trombone Shorty at the end, because it’s 93 minutes long and in New Orleans you can’t go that long without hearing “Saints” at least twice.
It’s a history lesson you can dance to, and at times it’s an unexpectedly mournful and moving portrait of a city that has an intimate relationship with death and damage.
Marshall and Suffern look at the festival through the lens of the 2019 festival, which was the 50th Jazz Fest. But while the majority of the concert performances are drawn from that year, it also uses footage from throughout the history of the festival, which began in 1971 with a small event that featured Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson.
After an opening barrage of clips and quotes designed to give a sense of what it’s like between the stages, the tents and the food stands on the fairgrounds where the festival is held, the film starts out chronologically but quickly becomes more thematic. It includes brief sections on the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, on New Orleans’ jazz funerals, on Mardi Gras Indians, on Cajun and zydeco music and on the jazz side of Jazz Fest through a performance by Ellis Marsalis and his four sons (Wynton, Bradford, Delfeayo and Jason) in 2019.
Some of these segments slide by too quickly (more Mardi Gras Indians, please!), but one of the things you learn going to Jazz Fest is that everybody has their own priorities and their own version of the festival. You might be in the crowd for Jimmy Buffett while I’m across the fairgrounds watching BeauSoleil, and nobody’s Jazz Fest is any better or more correct than anyone else’s. And as the singer and performance artist known as Boyfriend points out in one of her many astute observations in the film, the joy of the event is discovering the unexpected: “Walking from one stage to another … whether you want to or not, you’re going to experience something that your computer wouldn’t have put in your feed.”
So this isn’t my Jazz Fest movie; it’s Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern’s Jazz Fest movie. For me, the highlights might be Irma Thomas doing the Big Easy standards “Iko Iko” and “Hey Pocky Way,” Sonny Landreth playing some mean guitar, the Glen David Andrews Brass Band romping through “I Can Do Bad Myself” and Al Green returning to his secular material with a majestic “Let’s Stay Together.” For somebody else, it’ll be all about the scenes set in the Gospel Tent, or about Katy Perry or Pitbull or Samantha Fish or Herbie Hancock.
In the final half-hour, though, “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” brings it home with a stunning section devoted to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Jazz Fest that followed eight months later and became a symbol of the city’s resilience. It starts with footage of the devastated city over the mournful sounds of Gary Clark Jr. doing “I Got My Eyes on You” (“I left home to never come back … ”), and then moves into a Bruce Springsteen performance of “My City of Ruin” that Springsteen himself calls “one of the most beautiful concert experiences I’ve ever had.” (I was there that day, and I completely agree.)
In many ways, this is the heart of the film, and the sequence that emphasizes how “Jazz Fest,” like “Summer of Soul” and many other fine music docs, is about far more than the songs. But you can’t end a movie about Jazz Fest with a guy from New Jersey, so Marshall and Suffern find just the right coda: the angelic voice of Aaron Neville, whose Neville Brothers used to close the festival every year, caressing “Amazing Grace,” followed by that final “When the Saints Go Marching In” from Trombone Shorty.
Jimmy Buffett, an honorary New Orleanian and an executive producer of the film, gets the end-credits spot for a version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – and strangely enough, maybe that song by a pair of Brits is an apt way to end: I could give you a long list of artists and songs and themes I wanted to see in “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story,” but I can’t really argue with the necessary stuff that is here.
In the end, “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” is a movie to approach the same way you approach the festival: Move quickly, don’t worry about what you miss and rejoice in the funky delights in front of you.
“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” opens Friday in theaters.