Review | ‘Jazz Fest’ documentary isn’t just about jazz, or music, but life

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(3 stars)

Jazz Fest — or, as the annual Big Easy music gathering now in its 51st year is more formally known, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — isn’t now and never was just about jazz. As the lively and illuminating documentary “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” makes clear, it’s a celebration of funk, gospel, blues, rock, Cajun, zydeco, soul, hip-hop and many, many genres in between, including something called rap cabaret. That’s what’s practiced by the singer known as Boyfriend (Suzannah Powell), who appears on camera in her trademark giant hair rollers, waxing rhapsodic about the event, along with a host of other musicians, onstage and off.

Look for soul singer Irma Thomas; Ben Jaffe, musician and creative director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (and son of Preservation Hall founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe); rapper Pitbull; rocker Bruce Springsteen; and the late Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the musical family that has brought us Wynton, Delfeayo, Jason and Branford Marsalis. Ellis died in 2020 and performed with his sons at Jazz Fest the year before.

Appreciation: Ellis Marsalis was a great musician and an even greater teacher

But just as the festival isn’t only about jazz, the movie — which documents the 50th-anniversary festival in 2019, before covid shut it down for two years — also isn’t just about music. “Jazz Fest” briefly detours from a discussion of how music is woven into the fabric of New Orleans life — Mardi Gras, the jazz funeral and the “second line” parades of brass bands, derived from West African dances — to talk about “the best food in the world,” as one interview subject puts it. (You won’t disagree, and should probably not watch that part of the film, featuring crab beignets, gumbo and other Louisiana dishes, on an empty stomach.)

The film’s main voice and spiritual guide is Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis, who has been involved in the festival’s production since its founding, in 1970, by George Wein (who also appears in interviews conducted before his death, at age 95, last year). Davis is now a youthful-looking 74, and he helps articulate the ineffable sense that Jazz Fest is, for the residents of New Orleans — and perhaps for the many others who have flocked to the city from elsewhere — much more than a giant concert. It also seems to be a tangible manifestation of the city’s resilient spirit: announcing to the world that New Orleans was still alive, as one interviewee puts it, through Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and even through a pandemic.

There are gray hairs on some of the people in this fascinating film: Jimmy Buffett, Tom Jones (yes, that Tom Jones — he played the 2019 show) and others. But the energy that the film puts out is vital and full of sap.

PG-13. At the Angelika Film Center Mosaic and AMC’s Shirlington 7. Contains brief strong language and some suggestive images. 95 minutes.

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