SXSW Review: Frank Marshall & Ryan Suffern’s ‘Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story’

‘Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story’
Sony Pictures Classics

No American city is as steeped in native musical lore and legacy as is New Orleans and you get a good feeling for how that came about in Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story. It’s a documentary overflowing with performers and music that still barely begins to scratch the surface of what’s gone on musically for ages in the fabled, oft-distressed city. Music fans of assorted persuasions will be delighted with the samples served up here, although the subject is so vast and varied that something like a six or ten-hour miniseries would be required to begin to do it justice. With Sony Pictures Classics handling the U.S. release starting May 13 after it SXSW bow, the film is certain to get a nice lift-off and extensive exposure on home tubes is assured.

“Life is happening at a high frequency” when the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival takes place, as it has since 1971. Some call it “the world’s greatest backyard barbeque,” others “the most kick-ass party in the world.” There’s evidence of this and more at a festival that has also experienced debilitating blows, first from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then, of course, by the cancelation of two years of festivals due to the COVID pandemic.


Blessed with archival footage galore, co-directors Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, both loaded of documentary experience, draw a line leading back to the beginning of such specialized musical events, commonly marked by the emergence of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. As early as 1962, there was a movement to launch a similar endeavor in New Orleans, but Jim Crowe laws, which forbade white and black musicians from performing on the same stage, stood in the way, so nearly a decade passed before the first edition of the festival could actually take place. Highlights of 1971, when only New Orleans performers could take part, included Mahalia Jackson and Professor Longhair.

Given the lack of comprehensive documentation in the early years, the filmmakers do what they can to provide on-camera samples of the numerous musical influences afoot, everything from Cajun to brass bands. Academics can go on for hours about the sources and different styles, but New Orleans singer Irma Thomas sums it up by saying, “There is no such thing as separation of culture in New Orleans. It’s all blended together,” something like a great gumbo.

A key archival section focuses on the unique style of funerals in New Orleans tradition, in which music plays a significant role. One veteran explains that, “There’s a period of mourning but we celebrate the life. I don’t think any city has a better relationship with death than New Orleans. The suffering and the joy go hand in hand as time goes on.”

Eventually, especially after it outgrew its “handmade” origins and into spacious outdoor quarters at the out-of-town Fair Grounds Race Course, the festival became a very big deal, eventually drawing 400,000-plus to the ever-expanding event. The extraordinary amount of fabulous and very filling food is also very much in evidence.

The film’s second half is packed with performance footage of recent vintage. Much of it is fun to watch and listen to, and the performers span the generations; there are snippets, and sometimes full number performances, from the likes of Branford and other Marsalis relations, Herbie Hancock, B.B. King, Samantha Fish, Byron Hogans, Tom Jones, Marc Savoy, Rockin’ Dopsie, Alphonse Robair, John Hammond, Katy Perry singing gospel in a space queen outfit, the rather amazing Tank and the Bangas, Big Frieda, The Revivalists, Gary Clark Jr., Aaron Neville and, in his first appearance there, Bruce Springsteen.

To be sure, the festival has changed significantly from when it was basically a street and local venue event to something resembling a Super Bowl of American music. Jazz, as it has long been known, has very little to do with what’s performed now, and for all the performers of every ethnicity and background seen onstage, it’s quite noticeable that there is scarcely a black face to be seen in any of the audiences for these giant shows. Tourists probably account for the vast majority of the crowds, and the whole event resembles a Disneyland of energetic musical performances more than they express a connection with the sort of music historically associated with New Orleans specifically and the South generally.

The final song heard on the film’s soundtrack is the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which might well reflect the feelings of some early-years adherents to genuine New Orleans-style music.

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story made its world premiere in the SXSW 24 Beats Per Second section.

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