SXSW 2022 Review: Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story

Year: 2022

Runtime: 94 minutes

Directors: Frank Marshall, Ryan Suffern

By Joan Amenn

As Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us…” and he didn’t even know about social media. With the heaviness of these days, it is a comfort to turn to music. “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” (2022) brings us a respite in its depiction of the fifty-year history of this legendary annual event. Like last year’s “Summer of Soul” (2021), “Jazz Fest” is a glorious kaleidoscope of different musical styles but this film also provides insight into the resilience and culture of the people of New Orleans.

The city has had its share of sorrows and celebrations as anyone who has visited in time for Mardi Gras knows. Some tantalizing scenes of the food offerings at Jazz Fest will make you run to place an order at Goldbelly, so be warned if you watch without some form of snack food handy.  Directors Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern certainly know how to make viewers envious of those who actually attended the festival in its fifty-year run. It looks like a nonstop party for over a week straight, not just onstage but throughout the entire city of New Orleans.

My only quibble with the film is that it has a lot of talking and describing but is a little light on the actual music. When the entire musical family of the late, great Ellis Marsalis, Jr. take the stage and play together, it would be nice to hear more than just a few snippets of their performance. Jimmy Buffet playing his standard about still not finding his saltshaker may be trivial by now, but there are many more musicians who could have been showcased in more depth.

The exception to this is Bruce Springsteen’s appearance at the festival the year that Katrina hit the city of New Orleans. When he sings “My City of Ruins” and he shouts out the refrain, “Rise up!” you’ll be reduced to a mess or you’re just not breathing. It hits like a tsunami, even more so in light of the recent images in the news from Ukraine. Jazz Fest started out as focusing on jazz musicians living in or from Louisiana but has grown to embrace so much more diversity in musical genre and culture. It is a breathtaking achievement in organizing and outreach that is even more impressive in that it has continued for so long, pausing only for Covid-19 in 2020 and 2021.

“Jazz Fest: A Story of New Orleans” is a swinging good time for any music lover and a great way to learn more about a wonderful city full of history and culture. A little more of the infectious sounds the place is known for would have made for a stronger film, but it still sweeps a viewer up into its “joie de vivre”.          

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