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Film Review: “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” Is a Joy and a Delight

Written by: Heidi Shepler | May 27th, 2022

Film poster: “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story”

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story (Frank Marshall/Ryan Suffern, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.

For more than fifty years, the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival, better known as Jazz Fest, has brought hundreds of thousands of people to a relatively plain-looking fairgrounds for a celebration of New Orleans’ music, culture, and food. With seven thousand musicians performing over the course of eight days, not to mention the thousands of pounds of fried and spiced foods offered every day, Jazz Fest is celebrated as a homecoming, a voyage of discovery, a joyful sensory overload, and the best party the city has to offer. And it’s not just jazz—the festival has rock, soul, gospel, R&B, blues, and a host of other genres little known outside the city’s borders. The documentary Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is a loving portrait of the festival’s origins, history, and enduring cultural impact.

The history of Jazz Fest begins in the early 1960s, when founder George Wein was approached to host a jazz festival in New Orleans. He initially refused, because Jim Crow laws of the time would have prevented Black and white musicians from being on stage at the same time. That commitment to honoring the true heritage of the New Orleans musical tradition is part of what has always made Jazz Fest so magical. Rather than whitewash the event to cater to racist expectations, or bring in only big-name headliners to maximize profit, the ethos of the festival has always been about celebrating New Orleans and its music.

Still from JAZZ FEST: A NEW ORLEANS STORY ©Sony Pictures Classics

Much as at the festival itself, in Jazz Fest, the music never stops. From the introduction at the top of the film overlaid with “That’s It!” by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, to Jimmy Buffet’s cover of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at the very end, the music is the point. And the people who make that music and love it most are the heart and soul of the film. It’s always fun to hear someone talk about what brings them joy, and every musician interviewed—from Earth, Wind, & Fire, to Boyfriend, to Irma Thomas—has an incredible depth of love for Jazz Fest.

The entire film sparkles with footage of musicians playing and singing their hearts out, and of people laughing, dancing, and singing along to the music on any one of Jazz Fest’s seven stages. The cinematography is lush and colorful, capturing the vibe of the audience and performances without becoming distracting. And the extensive use of archival footage during the exploration of Jazz Fest’s fifty-year history grounds the film and shows how essential the festival has always been to local music culture. Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is a fun, insightful, and often moving watch. Possibly the only downside is scrambling to write down the names of so many artists you’ll want to listen to once the film is over.

Still from JAZZ FEST: A NEW ORLEANS STORY ©Sony Pictures Classics

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