In a way similar to Questlove’s brilliant Summer of Soul, the documentary Jazz Fest: a New Orleans Story (directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern) deftly balances the central subject of a music festival with broader swaths of historical, cultural, and social issues. In this case, the 50th anniversary of the fabled New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, in 2019 — before going dark for two pandemic years — is the launch point for a film looking inward at Jazz Fest. Founded by the late, great impresario George Wein and run by the passionate torch-keeper Quint Davis, it is a unique microcosmic village of a festival, which could only happen in New Orleans.
But the film also freely — and wisely — roams away from the fairgrounds to the larger turf of New Orleans, to its adjacent Louisiana swampland culture, the jazz birthplace of Congo Square, Mardi Gras and the inevitable subject of Hurricane Katrina. Despite the importance of “Jazz Fest,” jazz fans have long bemoaned the short shrift given to actual jazz at the festival, and in this film, only the Marsalis family and Preservation Jazz Hall get much jazz-minded love. High points include Bruce Springsteen singing a cathartically rousing “My City in Ruins,” just post- Katrina. We also sop up the sounds of Earth, Wind and Fire, Aaron Neville’s amazing “Amazing Grace,” the good Reverend Al Green and even Santa Barbara’s own Katy Perry, tapping her gospel roots with “Happy Day.”
One question: what’s cheese-headed Jimmy Buffet doing in the spotlight (apart from his executive producer clout)? He seems the antithesis of the Jazz Fest spirit and unfortunately gets the last word/song. That screen time should have gone to Gregory Porter, an eloquent interviewee in the film, and an emissary of soulfulness and, yes, jazz spirit. Quibbles aside, A New Orleans Story is a fascinating, mighty fine gumbo of a film experience, one of the finer music docs in the current crowded menu.