The overall experience of attending a huge music festival is well captured in “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story.” Directors Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern use footage from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, including lively artist performances, off stage antics, and plenty of interviews with attendees, artists, and the people who call the city home. It’s a who’s who of the annual cultural festival that’s become a signature for The Big Easy, and one that draws thousands each year.
The film plays like an ad created by the New Orleans tourism bureau, a slick marketing promotional video that highlights the amazing live concert, the big name artists, the Southern hospitality, the city’s multicultural charm, and the abundance of local cuisine. It’s enough to make you want to drop everything and catch the first flight to New Orleans. That’s not a bad thing, but I couldn’t help but feel as if the documentary was trying to oversell me on the event.
The film, like the festival, is overstuffed. The concert footage is good but repetitive, and is at its best when showcasing unexpected Jazz Fest acts like Katy Perry and Bruce Springsteen, or tried-and-true classic artists like Herbie Hancock, the men from the Marsalis family, and Earth, Wind and Fire. The wide variety of performers means there’s something for everyone, and it’s interesting to hear how such a wide range of singers and songwriters from pop, rock, gospel, and blues have a vast catalog that includes songs rooted in jazz basics. There’s even a lengthy bit that features a near-exhaustive education on the genre, including an exploration of the difference in styles of zydeco and jazz.
Charismatic interviews round out the film, including plenty of time spent talking to Jimmy Buffet, who calls New Orleans home. Buffet’s influence runs deep, as he has always been one of the Fest’s biggest supporters. His love for the city is contagious, and his casual conversations and personal stories are among the best scenes in the documentary.
While it’s enjoyable to feel like an attendee in the crowd, the film covers a lot of ground and tries to include too much. There’s a section about the devastation that Hurricane Katrina left in her wake, which feels unnecessary in a documentary about a music festival. Not to sound callous, but it adds to the overstuffed feeling of the film.
“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” is excessive, but excess is one of the attributes that makes The Big Easy such a special place. I didn’t love this film and its off-putting advertisement feel. While I am not a fan, it’s a snapshot of the diversity, resilience, and the cultural allure of New Orleans, and is a documentary that music enthusiasts should enjoy.