Jimmy Buffett had been trying for years to get producer Frank Marshall to attend the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where Buffett is a frequent headliner. "He's my best friend and always invites me down, and I've never been able to go," Marshall says. "Certainly, we shot Benjamin Button and Jurassic World down there, so I knew New Orleans and had heard about the festival, but things just never worked out."
Back in 2018, Marshall was on the road with Buffett and found himself back at the hotel after an Eagles concert, amongst a group of musicians discussing their upcoming plans for Jazz Fest. That's where he first met Quint Davis, the festival's co-founder, who pitched the filmmaker an idea for a documentary.
"The hook was [that] it was the 50th anniversary, and they had a lot of archival footage and photographs and performances dating right back to the very first one," Marshall explains. "It just seemed like, 'Wow, this could be something really special and fun to do.'" Thus was born Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story. Though, "I think I probably would've gone anyway."
Marshall is a five-time Oscar nominee for producing such films as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Color Purple and Raiders of the Lost Ark — Harrison Ford is the mutual friend who introduced Marshall and Buffett — and winner of the 2019 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. He also directs music documentaries, having previously released movies about The Bee Gees, Carole King and James Taylor.
"Unlike my day job where I have a script and I know every minute what I'm going to be doing, with a documentary, I love the freedom of it and the spontaneity," he tells A.frame. "You're going, 'Oh, look what's happening over there! Get a camera over there.' It's a whole different kind of filmmaking, and I really thrive on it and enjoy it."
Enlisting frequent collaborator Ryan Suffern to co-direct with him, Marshall began working out the logistics of how they could pull this off. Jazz Fest takes places over eight days, with the culture, food and people on display as essential to the experience as the music, of which there are some 7,000 musicians performing on 14 stages. That made it impossible to cover everything and everyone in one film.
"Because it's not only jazz, I wanted to make sure we covered a blues group, a gospel group, some Zydeco, even the marching bands. We knew there was going to be a jazz funeral, so we felt it was important to cover that," Marshall recalls. Festival staples like Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Green and Irma Thomas, the "Soul Queen of New Orleans" herself, made their list, as did Katy Perry and Pitbull.
"But then I said, 'Well, who do you like?' And Quint said, 'You gotta see Samantha Fish, who is really my favorite new artist there,'" he says, "'but also Tank and the Bangas and Boyfriend and all these groups.' I said, 'Who?!'" (Marshall now considers Fish a favorite of his, too.)
The filmmakers employed three camera crews, led by directors of photography Boyd Hobbs, Justin Kane and Mike Parry, to canvas the festival. One perk of being one of the most prolific producers in town is that Marshall was friendly with the head of IMAX, who donated IMAX cameras for their shoot.
"The DPs loved having these beautiful cameras that gave such a wonderful image," he says. "It's not only a beautiful festival that really lends itself to the photography, but also, up at Skywalker Sound, it helped us create this tremendous audio track that would go along with it. So, it not only sounds great, it looks great."
One of the final performances in the movie comes from Bruce Springsteen, figuring prominently as the movie looks back on the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the collective resilience of New Orleanians. In 2006, Springsteen took the stage at the 37th Jazz Fest, which returned to The Big Easy only eight months after the storm, serving as a moment of shared catharsis for the city. "The movie's really about hope, and coming back, and resilience, and perseverance," Marshall says. "And that's part of the festival."
It's something Marshall knows all too well now, since the next year, Jazz Fest was cancelled for the first time in its fifty-year history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 2021 would also go without a Jazz Fest, which finally returned this year — perfectly coinciding with Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story finally opening in movie theaters.
In the film, Springsteen's performance of "My City of Ruin" is followed by Aaron Neville singing "Amazing Grace," and then, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue's rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In," a number which traditionally ends the festival. Originally, Marshall thought it would be how the film would conclude as well. Ultimately, he decided to end the movie how it began: With Buffett.
"The Rolling Stones were supposed to be there, and then Mick [Jagger] had a problem with his throat. So, they canceled at the last moment and Jimmy stepped in," he says. "At the end of his set, Jimmy said, 'My encore performance is going to be dedicated to Mick and the band.' And that's when he did 'You Can't Always Get What You Want.' We weren't planning on shooting that number, and I said, 'Everybody suit back up.'"
"It's one of those things that summed up the whole festival for me — and life. You can't always get what you want," Marshall ruminates. "We all wished things had happened a different way, but that's not always how it is."