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Art and Craft

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Frank Marshall’s documentary on the New Orleans Jazz Fest is an average overview that misses a few notes.

All That Jazz

A festive throng
A festive throng

Given Marshall, a legendary producer in his own right with Raiders of the Lost Ark and so many other blockbusters on his résumé, co-directed Jazz Fest with documentarian Ryan Suffern and co-produced with Jimmy Buffett, this effort has to be considered a mild disappointment.

It’s a great idea for a documentary. The New Orleans Jazz Fest (formally, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival), an annual landmark event, has grown to feature 7,000 musicians across 14 stages over the course of eight days — drawing somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 attendees every day. That mark makes the festival Louisiana’s sixth largest city. And — excepting a two-year hiatus because of Covid — it’s been held every single year since 1971.

The problem is Jazz Fest feels too much like a standard documentary. It doesn’t really deliver the soul of the experience.

That’s not to throw shade on the performers. The lineup of talent offering insights in this spritely feature is terrific and it runs the whole gamut of artists young and old, classic and cutting edge. Pitbull. Tom Jones. Boyfriend (Suzannah Powell, not the K-pop sensation). Earth, Wind & Fire. Bongo Joe. Cowboy Mouth. Divine Ladies. Al Green. Katy Perry (singing Gospel!). Big Freedia. The Revivalists. Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers.

Their insights are great, they add a lot of color.

“The air is thick,” says Gregory Porter, “but not with just humidity, it’s thick with culture.”

And that’s also where Jazz Fest wobbles. While the doc succeeds in revealing the fest as much more than just jazz, it falters in finding its own tempo and sound. It doesn’t have enough focus.

Survey Says

Part of the problem is Jazz Fest tries to cover too much ground in only 95 minutes. Given that truncated running time, much of the movie feels like a mere survey that reveals the source material as worthy of something much more in-depth, perhaps a mini-series along the lines of The History of Rock and Roll.

Consider this: it’s not just the music on stage. Jazz Fest includes a riff about the food, with the setting described as “a massive backyard barbecue.” Gain 10 pounds. Clog the arteries. YOLO, after all.

Of course, the documentary also takes a detour and goes back to Katrina in 2005. That’s where it becomes a little frustrating. Bruce Springsteen and a host of A-listers make the post-Katrina festival a revival party – a great story in itself, no doubt. But Springsteen performs City of Ruins and gives a nod to Asbury Park as the song’s origin story while totally overlooking how he also used the song as a post-9/11 anthem. Springsteen’s segment simply doesn’t sit well; it feels too curated as it fails to hit the mark with a larger message about the power of music and healing.

Moving on from food and Katrina, Jazz Fest finds time to chat with the swamp people of Louisiana and touch on other cultural elements of Louisiana life, including death and jazz funerals.

All worthy topics, undeniably. But those elements take away from the focus of the fest: the experience itself.

The Flow

Jimmy Buffett
Jimmy Buffett

The biggest problem with Jazz Fest is the festival coverage. The performance footage is surprisingly standard. There’s a dire need for a better, more engaging presentation of both what’s on stage and in the crowd. Drones offer an aerial view of the massive scale and the tens of thousands in attendance, but the average concert video gives a better sense of the excitement that’s generated between the performers and the audience.

Bring the sweat, feel the heat. Instead of making the festival jump off the screen, Jazz Fest feels too much like an extended infomercial for the Louisiana Office of Tourism. That’s the source of the bulk of the disappointment, especially when there’s no doubt boundless reels of footage on the cutting room floor.

What’s needed is more of what Suzannah Powell talks about as she makes some great points about the fest as a human, tangible experience. She revels in the physical, on-foot exploration that cannot be captured in the digital world, sitting at home and digested online. As she slickly puts it, you “experience things between stages your computer wouldn’t have put in your feed.”

That’s it. That’s the problem. Jazz — born and raised in New Orleans — is fluid, it’s in the moment. Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story, however, is orchestrated. It’s too calculated and too curated.

“It’s nice to be wanted without being in a picture in the post office.”
— Ellis Marsalis