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When the Saints Go Marching In

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The Kennedy/Marshall Company/Sony Pictures Classics

MOVIE REVIEW
Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story (2022)

In a way, “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” feels like “Summer of Soul ( . . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” with melanin vastly depleted. Directors Ryan Suffern and Frank Marshall seem oblivious at best, ignorant at worst, glossing over glaring questions so as to not hold anyone accountable for apparent inequities on display, making the proceedings as pleasant and inoffensive as possible to make nice with white upper-middle-class boomers who presumably make up their target audience.

First off, how does the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival come to be an event headlined by Jimmy Buffett, of all people? Like, where is all that jazz? Among the musical acts featured in the film, fewer than half fit in the musical category even if you strain to include tangentially connected genres such as blues, funk and gospel. In 1962, Hotel Corporation of America enlisted promoter George Wein to create an event in New Orleans modeled after the Newport Jazz Festival, which he had also launched. Due to Jim Crow, the New Orleans fest would not materialize for nearly a decade until 1971. Yet, unlike the Newport event, it has not maintained its jazz bona fides.

Cultural appropriation is another elephant in the room, frustratingly. The segment devoted to local food culture, featuring shrimp jambalaya, cracklings, pralines, po’ boys and cochon de lait, surfaces white vendors for the most part. Then there’s Katy Perry boasting her gospel cred with the backing of a Black choir on a mashup of “Oh Happy Day” and “Firework.” It’s a bit unhinged to just let all these good times roll without some semblance of reckoning or at least acknowledgment.

The narrative leads up to the post-Katrina edition, with Bruce Springsteen as the closer singing “My City of Ruins,” written for another town. Messrs. Suffern and Marshall never highlight or engage with material by Black artists (Tank and the Bangas, just as an example) the way they linger over Messrs. Buffett and Springsteen, and the filmmakers’ halfhearted effort to show the city’s resilience via montage feels like an afterthought with festival director Quint Davis’s show-must-go-on framing in the voiceovers. Postscripts over end titles inform us that the Jazz & Heritage Festival was paused for the first time in half a century due to Covid-19 and only resumed this year, yet they can’t be bothered to follow up during this two-year hiatus, which goes to show you the degree of their interest in the subject. About the only good thing one can say about the film is that the concert footages sound fantastic.

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