At times, it takes being removed from something to make you truly appreciate it. The concert experience is one that became an impossibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, the sacred gathering of harmonious strangers to soak in live music. In polarizing times, the arts are a bridge for us to understand each other, remove the barriers of debates and disagreements and allow for something bigger than ourselves to remind us of what we share. During the pandemic, isolation pulled us further apart, and made documentaries like Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story take on that much more significance.
Far more than just a collection of concert footage and dancing patrons, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story raises the banner for a civic institution, a cultural celebration for all that transcends its jazzy identity into becoming a flagship event for a vital American city. The latest music-based documentary from legendary producer/filmmaker Frank Marshall and collaborator Ryan Suffern stirs the soul with energetic editing, a host of moving interviews and some indelible performance snippets from artists ranging from jazz pianist George Wein to pop sensations like Jimmy Buffett and Pitbull. Rather than just toast an endearing festival that has persevered for more than 50 years, the documentary just celebrates being alive, of being able to look at life with a pep in your step and a song in your heart. If you find yourself getting a little misty at watching people just being happy together in a collective space, you won’t be alone. We belong together, after all, and Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story evangelizes the vitality of preserving culture that keep us unified.
Akin to 2021’s Summer of Soul, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story fixates on what a cultural gathering means to a community. Primarily capturing the event’s 50th anniversary in 2019, Marshall and Suffern bounce between a view of what’s ongoing and a view of what’s come before, allowing the current happenings during the time of filming to juxtapose between the festival’s rich history. Hopping around between past and present can potentially be jarring in the documentary format, but Marshall and Suffern find the throughlines to keep things paced with the buoyant spirit of the festival. We bob and weave between the sights and sounds on the ground, from high-energy performances from artists like Big Freedia and the Marsalis family to food stands with scrumptious-looking Louisianian cuisine. The whole festival looks refreshingly lived-in, a pop-up event for the whole community to enjoy rather than a sterile megafest with no sense of cultural imprints. Music festivals have grown to be more cumbersome and inaccessible in the years that have passed, and it’s a joy to see one embrace its roots and blend together some of the top names in music with local staples who carry on the traditions passed down to them. When Irma Thomas and Trombone Shorty can share in the same rapturous praise as Katy Perry, you know your jazz festival is staying true to itself.
The city of New Orleans plays itself beautifully throughout the documentary, with its cultural stewards keeping Jazz Fest impressively consistent through years of ups and downs. The down of downs, you can’t tell the story of New Orleans without showcasing the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. The documentary avoids stating the obvious about how horrible the storm was on the city by showing how the festival represented one of the many phoenixes to rise from the hurricane’s ashes. With just one glimpse of Bruce Springsteen’s soul-wrecking performance of “My City of Ruins” at the Jazz Fest right after Katrina, you get the totality of what a return to cultural habit meant to the people of New Orleans after the storm. For a people who have found a healthy way to channel death by celebrating the life lived, you sense that delicate post-Katrina rebirth in the way the festival returned from the nightmares the storm brought to its shores.
Concert documentaries can, at times, be a bit too insular, too focused on the artists and their relationship with the crowd than anything else. In Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story, it feels like everyone has a seat at the table. It’s less Coachella than a party with all your friends in someone’s backyard, the kinds of intimate gatherings full of love, great music and even better food that makes it hard to ever want to leave home. Marshall and Suffern certainly do the festival justice, offering as good of a filmed glimpse of what Jazz Fest is and what it means as you could possibly get in this format. While just doing that would’ve been enough for recommendation, it’s the power of digging deeper that helps the film really shine. You can’t really experience something like Jazz Fest in full without understanding what that experience means. Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story captures the heart and soul of how a festival can represent a city, and how a city can keep its culture true to itself, no matter how the times change. Jazz will live on in New Orleans, and you can take comfort that, no matter what, the band won’t stop playing for long. Marshal and Suffern’s documentary is as much a promise as it is a celebration.