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

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No American city is as steeped in native musical tradition and heritage as New Orleans, and you get a pretty good idea of ​​how that came to be in Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story. It’s a documentary brimming with artists and music that barely begins to scratch the surface of what has happened musically for centuries in the legendary and often anguished city. Music fans of various persuasions will be delighted with the samples on offer here, though the subject matter is so vast and varied that it would take something like a six or ten hour mini-series to even begin to do it justice. With Sony Pictures Classics handling the US release from May 13 after its SXSW showing, the film is sure to get off to a good start and wide exposure in homes 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 best backyard barbecue in the world”, others “the most amazing world.” There is evidence of this and more at a festival that has also suffered debilitating blows, first from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then, of course, from the cancellation of two years of festivals due to the COVID pandemic.

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Blessed with archival footage aplenty, co-directors Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, both steeped in documentary experience, trace a line back to the beginning of such specialized musical events, commonly marked by the rise of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. In 1962, there was a movement to launch a similar effort in New Orleans, but Jim Crowe’s laws, which prohibited 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 take place. Highlights from 1971, when only New Orleans artists could participate, 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 many musical influences at work, from Cajun to marching bands. Academics can talk for hours about fonts 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 mixed up,” kind of like a big gumbo.

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

Eventually, especially after it outgrew its “handmade” origins and became spacious outdoor spaces at the Fair Grounds racetrack outside of town, the festival grew into a huge event, eventually drawing over 400,000. people to the ever-expanding event. The extraordinary amount of fabulous and very filling food is also very much in evidence.

The second half of the film is packed with footage from recent performances. Much of it is fun to watch and listen to, and the performers span generations; there are snippets, and sometimes entire performances, by the likes of Branford and other Marsalis relatives, Herbie Hancock, BB 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 amazing Tank and the Bangas, Big Frieda, The Revivalists, Gary Clark Jr., Aaron Neville and, in his first appearance there, Bruce Springsteen.

Without a doubt, the festival has changed significantly from when it was basically a street and local event to something akin to a Super Bowl of American music. Jazz, as it has long been known, has very little to do with what is being performed now, and for all the artists of all ethnicities and backgrounds seen on stage, it is quite remarkable that hardly a face is seen black in any of the hearings. for these giant shows. Tourists probably make up the vast majority of the crowds, and the entire event feels more like a Disneyland of energetic musical performances than a connection to the type of music historically associated specifically with New Orleans and the South in general.

The last song heard on the film’s soundtrack is the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which may well reflect the sentiments of some of the earliest followers of genuine New York-style music. Orleans.

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

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