Fight Back with Music: How New Orleans Dances with Sorrow

Jason Berry’s new documentary film City of a Million Dreams, about jazz funerals in New Orleans, celebrates our dance with sorrow.

The parade of brass from church to grave is an American institution– and treasure. (One service, the film recounts, included six bands, the first of which reached the cemetery before the body left the altar.)

The march starts somber, then sashays into joy. When you’re alive, it’s okay to dance. The bouncing blue note embraces the reality of our vale of tears and overwhelms the myth that we might do away with suffering and death. In the words of Fred Johnson, leader of Black Men of Labor, a parading club: “When you’re going to a funeral, that’s the last thing you can do for a person.”

Three of the things our Moundsville blog and movie are about – America, love of place, and reckoning with death and grief – are what City of a Million Dreams sings of. 

In a 2018 book, ​​City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300, Berry tells a wider history of New Orleans, and chronicles how jazz funerals grew out of the city’s fusion of African rhythms, Catholic city funerals, and French civic organizations. The book is a deep, rich work, which the Wall Street Journal called a “bold, witty and deeply researched history of his native city homes in on the sound of the place.”

The focus on funerals might seem too narrow, but as Berry said at a screening last week in New York at America Magazine: “The more I researched the story of funerals, the more I realized I was researching the story of the city.”

And it’s also something Berry was born to write about. He’s a New Orleans-based journalist who was the first reporter in the world to connect the dots and write of the bigger picture of how the Catholic church was covering up its priests’ abuse of children. He got that story right 20 years before anybody else, in what I think is one the great achievements in the history of American journalism. (For the story of that legacy, I recommend the New York Times op-doc, Almost Famous: The First Report.)

“I’ve given my life to studying the church of my birth and the city of my life,” he told me when I caught up with him in New York. After going on the road and reporting on child abuse, he’d often attend a jazz funeral and marvel at the intertwining of the lovely precious and the shrieking sad. 

“For a city of its size, 380,000 people, New Orleans is an outsized place,” he said. “It attracts people who sink into its roots.”

People like the documentary’s main character, Deborah “Big Red” Cotton, a writer who moves to the city and falls in love with New Orleans and jazz funerals.

Her prose, recited in the film, anchors the narrative. “At any given moment, life and death can change places with each other,” she says. “Once New Orleans is in your blood no other city will do.” Like life, says Cotton, New Orleans “breaks your heart until you’re lying on the kitchen floor.”

Deborah Cotton

The film pivots when Cotton is one of the people hit in a gang shooting at a Sunday parade. It’s jarring, and apt. Each of us will one day need a funeral. 

The most stunning part of Berry’s film is the cinematography, accomplished over 20 years of filming. Berry became interested in jazz funerals in the 1990s. He also dug up some gems from local archives.

Berry has been taking the film on the road to festivals and screenings, and is looking for a mainstream distributor. “We’re on the route most indy films take to a deal for an airdate or streaming, and that’s through film festivals and outreach screenings that generate reviews, building interest in the work.”

The shots are what make the film. Many belong in the Smithsonian. Crowds of human swimming and surfing up and down streets, flowing and overflowing, dancing on rooftops and sidewalks. There’s a reenactment of dancing and drumming at Congo Square by enslaved people, who were allowed one day of week of free artistic expression and who lay the groundwork for a new kind of music in America. Feathered costumes of men dressed as Indian chiefs. It’s easily the finest collection of footage on the subject I’ve ever seen.

My favorite: A shot of a saxophonist serenading a corpse. I laughed out loud at the absurdity and beauty of something I loved but had never seen before. 

And, of course, there’s the music, thick with the song of brass chirping, wailing, and humming like you’ll be after seeing the film.

As a voice in City of a Million Dreams reminds us: “The only defense people in New Orleans have is to fight back with music, and to live in the moment and to enjoy life.”

Check the website for screenings and other info.

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