Review: ‘Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story’ engagingly breezes through event’s musical history

A man with a guitar performs before a large outdoor audience in the documentary “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story.”
B.B. King from the documentary “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story.”
(Michael P. Smith / Historic New Orleans Collection / Kennedy / Marshall Co. / Sony Pictures Classics)

Taking only 90 minutes to celebrate 50 years of countless bands making every kind of music in a legendary atmosphere of communal joy is surely a fool’s mission. And yet the documentary “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” from Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, is lively enough to be what it needs to be: a rollicking, heartfelt shout-out to (and glorified tourism ad for) a cherished fairground blowout that has long buoyed a routinely troubled city.

This year’s COVID-19-delayed return of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, three years after the 50th anniversary that sparked this film, just wrapped, so the timing of this documentary’s release could be interpreted as, “See what you missed?” Of course, even to attend is to court FOMO, knowing you can’t get to every tent, every horn blower, jazz luminary, blues singer, drum virtuoso, guitar goddess, gospel choir, zydeco outfit and pop headliner out there — it’s hundreds of acts each year. (And for the hungry, an entirely separate deep dive.) One of the film’s many interviewees, Gregory Porter, describes the thickness in the air as not just humidity but also culture.

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In the ‘60s, though, as the movie lays out through some early chronology, it was the city feeling left out, missing a way to showcase its rich, historic musical vibrancy in the manner of increasingly popular live festivals like Newport’s. Jim Crow laws forbade race-mixing on stages, until Newport’s creator, George Wein (interviewed before his death last year), gave Big Easy residents their first taste in 1970 with a compact event spotlighting Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington and Professor Longhair. Cut to 2019, and the gumbo of styles captured on camera in performance snippets — from Trombone Shorty to Jimmy Buffet, Irma Thomas to Katy Perry, Pitbull to the Marsalis family — is a point of curatorial pride to longtime festival producer Quint Davis (the film’s most frequent talking head, and an executive producer on the documentary).


As a playlist shuffle flecked with history and feeling, archival mixing with snappy testimonials and concert footage, it’s solidly engaging, but more variety show than something richly bone-deep (the way “Summer of Soul” reinvigorated this doc genre). There’s a wonderful emphasis on artist diversity and a touching section toward the end on how the festival’s post-Katrina edition — and an appearance by Bruce Springsteen — helped re-establish its vitality to the city. And yet one senses a missed opportunity to drop us inside this beloved event as a you-are-there experience instead of a highlight reel. “Jazz Fest” isn’t without flavor and rhythm, but what’s lacking is the thickness.

'Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story'

Rated: PG-13, for brief language and some suggestive material

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles; and AMC the Grove, Los Angeles