Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story
Directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern
Classification: PG; 93 minutes
Opens at Toronto’s Hot Docs Cinema June 3, expanding to other Canadian cities throughout June
Ignore the accurate but uninspired title: Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is the kind of electric, spirit-lifting music documentary that will make you want to reinvent your life so that you can live your entire existence in the heart of Louisiana. Heck, I’ve had the great fortune to previously attend the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – many years ago, before children and general fiscal responsibility came into view – and Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern’s doc still made the event feel like entirely fresh, undiscovered territory.
Half soulful ad for the New Orleans tourism board and half serious-minded look at the triumph of the human spirit over toxic racism, Jazz Fest mixes celebration and reservation, triumph and tragedy. Technically, the doc isn’t the most adventurous production – there are a lot of talking heads mixed with footage of festivals past, plus lots of material from the fest’s 50th edition, which took place in 2019 just before COVID-19 nearly wiped the celebration out. We get lengthy, get-up-and-move performances from such disparate acts as Earth, Wind & Fire to Jimmy Buffett, seemingly a long way from Margaritaville, but beloved by locals all the same.
Like Questlove’s Oscar-winning Summer of Soul from last year, the fiery performances sit easily next to smoothly delivered history lessons. And like Questlove, long-time collaborators Suffern and Marshall (the latter a veteran director and producing partner of Steven Spielberg, who has had a hand in dozens of Hollywood hits) keep their film’s momentum moving, wisely letting the real stars of the show, the musicians, seize the spotlight. There is Aaron Neville delivering a stick-to-your-ribs rendition of Amazing Grace, and indelible footage of a surprisingly nervous-looking Bruce Springsteen performing My City of Ruin during the 2006 festival, the organization’s first post-Hurricane Katrina edition.
Perhaps the filmmakers could have eased up on the close-ups of triple-fried New Orleans cuisine – the point at which the doc truly dips into pedestrian CNN travelogue territory – but the entire affair is a love letter, so why not go for the heart and thus the inevitable heart attack? Let Jazz Fest save your soul and worry about your cholesterol levels later.
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