(August 5)

Dr. Michael White, the traditional New Orleans jazz clarinetist, is a virtuoso at his craft. If a new documentary film called City of a Million Dreams receives as wide an audience as it deserves, White will become a national folk hero.

City streams online Aug. 11-22 at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and will play at film festivals and academic settings throughout the fall. It is a work a quarter-century in the making by renowned New Orleans journalist and cultural chronicler Jason Berry. It shares the same name and similar themes as Berry’s 2018 hardcover history released to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding, but the film is less a chronological narrative than it is a collage of contrapuntal and syncopated sounds and images revolving around New Orleans jazz funerals.

Yes, funerals — as in the famous joint expressions of mourning and celebration that feature “second line” dance marches to mark the joy of a soul’s ascent into heaven. As director Berry shows, those ceremonies have extraordinarily complex roots and meanings. What his documentary does, lovingly and in mesmerizingly watchable fashion, is explore the African American culture from which jazz funerals evolved — and how the funerals epitomize the soul and resilience of the Crescent City perpetually endangered by storms, floods, fires, coastal erosion, and diseases such as Yellow Fever.

Mardi Gras, of course, plays a prominent role in the collage, as do the far darker legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and the sad reality of some urban gang warfare. And Hurricane Katrina blows through the film with tremendous emotional force. Without an obvious, driving, central narrative, sometimes the film doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular (although it is), but even when it spins off as if to mimic the improvisational style of jazz, its visual and auditory richness keeps the viewer enthralled…. [For the rest of this film review — one of the articles I have most enjoyed writing in my entire career — do  please follow this link.]


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