Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

With all due apologies to Nashville, it’s New Orleans that really deserves the title “Music City USA.” Having picked a fight with my opening sentence, I’ll double down by noting that many consider New Orleans the birthplace of jazz, perhaps America’s greatest contribution to music. But the city has much more to offer, musically speaking: the mixture of peoples and cultures in this major port city and commercial hub helped make the city a leader in the cultivation of diverse musical styles from gospel to country to hip-hop. Cast your net a bit wider in the state, and you can add styles like Cajun and Zydeco to the mix. And just in case you think classical music is neglected, remember that New Orleans was the site of the first opera house in the United States.

So yes, people in New Orleans like their music, and the city annually hosts one of the best music festivals in the world. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, more commonly known as Jazz Fest, was founded in 1970, and as of 2022, has expanded to run for almost two weeks and to include a wide variety of programming, including music, cooking, arts and crafts, and folk heritage.

Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern’s Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is a celebration of the Festival, the city that hosts it, and more generally of good music, good food, and taking pleasure in life. The first thing that becomes clear is that the name is a bit of a misnomer: jazz is but one among many musical styles heard in this documentary. The array of performers heard and interviewed is more like a portrait of American music today (plus a brief foray into global music): of course the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is represented, as is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Irma Thomas, Wynton Marsalis, and a score of other jazz greats, but we also hear from the likes of Big Freedia, Jimmy Buffett, Earth Wind & Fire, Al Green, and Tom Jones. The 2019 Festival is the focus of this documentary, a choice that seems particularly resonant in hindsight, as the Festival was cancelled the next two years due to the COVID pandemic.

While the soundtrack doesn’t feature full performances of songs (not enough time to linger, presumably), music is a near-constant presence in Jazz Fest, and clips from the different types of music and different artists are skillfully edited together by Martin Singer to create one beautiful mosaic. In fact, this film is more a collage than a conventional infodump documentary, to the point where the sections offering detail on some particular subject can seem a bit jarring. But that’s not really a concern when the subjects so engaging, the music so good, and everyone is just so full of joy. Besides, the collage vibe is actually a good reflection of the festival experience—listen to a bit of this, then a bit of that, and no need to worry if you come across something that’s not exactly to your taste because there’s so much on offer there’s bound to be something you do like nearby.

Jazz Fest is so relentlessly upbeat that, if the subject were anything other than the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I might accuse it of being promotional material masquerading as a documentary. But I’ve been to the Jazz and Heritage Festival, so I can testify that the portrait offered in this film is true to the experience of attending the Festival in real life. And honestly, if you can’t enjoy two weeks of great music and good food among people who are also there to enjoy themselves and appreciate it all, you might want to reconsider where you’ve gone astray in your life. | Sarah Boslaugh

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