SXSW Documentary Review: ‘Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story’

Greetings again from the darkness. We are informed that the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival features 7000 musicians across 14 stages over 8 days. It’s a massive and popular event and co-directors Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern set out to highlight the festival’s 50th anniversary in 2019, and ended up with a blend of music, history, and culture. Mr. Marshall, along with his wife Kathleen Kennedy, is a frequent producing partner of Steven Spielberg, and he also directed the 1990 favorite ARACHNOPHOBIA. Marshall and Suffern previously collaborated on music documentaries of Carole King-James Taylor, and The Bee Gees.

In New Orleans, “the air is thick with humidity and culture.” Music has long been a key element in the culture, and we see clips of late greats like Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino, and BB King. We also hear from festival co-founders George Wein and Quint Davis, and learn that despite the festival’s name, all types of music have been featured, including jazz, gospel, soul, blues, R&B, and whatever that is that Pitbull does. In this spirit, the filmmakers include clips of live performances from such artists as the Marsalis family, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Buffett, Earth Wind & Fire, Al Green (in a comeback), and the great Aaron Neville singing “Amazing Grace.”

Any conversation about New Orleans must also include the unique local cuisine, the craziness of Mardi Gras, and the tragedy and destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The first festival held after the hurricane featured Bruce Springsteen, and we get the footage of him performing, “My City of Ruin.” The film isn’t really structured as a history of the festival, but there is plenty here to justify a viewing, especially the clips of festival performances. To cap it off, Marshall and Suffern show us 2022 as The Big Easy and the festival recover from two years of pandemic shutdown, and leaves us with … “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

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