Dan Webster reviews "Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story"
Music documentaries come in all forms, from straight concert coverage such as “Stop Making Sense” and “The Last Waltz” to making-of studies such as “Muscle Shoals” and “The Wrecking Crew!”
And there are those that cover music festivals, both those that capture the setting with mostly positive vibes, such as Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock, and those that depict a far more negative atmosphere. The Maysles brothers’ “Gimme Shelter” comes to mind.
In the midst of all these music-minded explorations, you’ll find “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story,” a documentary feature that is both a celebration of a specific event and an honoring of the city that serves as that event’s setting.
Of course, few cities are more celebrated than New Orleans. The musical history of the city, in particular, dates back centuries and comprises the roots that would find their way into a variety of forms – jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll and in recent years hip hop, with Caribbean and Spanish rhythms not to mention both Cajun and Zydeco bands adding to the mix.
Yet that interplay reflects the city itself, as diverse a blend of cultures as exists anywhere in the world. That fusion, too, is reflected in the city’s wealth of food choices, and their attendant quality, which are as much a part of the city’s unique cultural melding as its music.
All of which “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” addresses. Co-directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, and including interviews with a number of performers, the film is both a history of what is properly called the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and a love letter to the city that spawned it.
That spawning began in 1970 after a promoter named George Wein – founder of the Newport Jazz Festival – was asked to create a similar type of festival for New Orleans. Wein had failed in a similar quest eight years earlier because the city governors then thought that the racial divide – Jim Crow laws of the time being what they were – was too great. By 1970, though, their attitude, and those race-based laws, had changed.
Credit Wein for wanting to put on a festival different from what he’d created for Newport. Rather than a mere musical event, he envisioned something that would celebrate not just New Orleans’ music but its very way of life. And so Jazz Fest was born.
Marshall and Suffern capture all this, using archival footage to portray that inaugural affair, a comparatively humble event attracting a few hundred people to watch Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington and a few others. By 2019, the year before COVID shut down things for two years, the festival was attracting over 100,000 fans who had gathered to watch some 7,000 acts that included the likes of Irma Thomas and Katy Perry, Earth, Wind and Fire and the Dirty Brass Band, playing on eight stages over the course of eight days.
Then, too, the filmmakers fit in not just the area’s history, especially the racial strife, but they understandably cover the story that made New Orleans the subject of headlines in 2005: Hurricane Katrina. Adding Bruce Springsteeen singing his ode “My City of Ruins,” which he had originally written as an anthem for Asbury Park, New Jersey, makes that section particularly moving.
All of this, buoyed by those many talking heads and references to the varieties of scrumptious food being served, is a lot to fold into a brief 94 minutes. So while a number of groups are featured, few play for very long – even less than what director Questlove included in last year’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”
It's no criticism to yearn for a bit more of the music and a bit less of the commentary from those who perform it.
Then again, the point of “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” is about more than just music: It’s about what the city itself represents. The film is likely best summed up in what Cowboy Mouth musician Fred LeBlanc stated about the city’s ability to handle crisis, whether it be racism, bad weather or COVID.
“Life is to be enjoyed,” he said, “not endured.”
For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.
Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for Spokane7.com.