Sunday, April 03, 2022

Ashland Independent ’22: City of a Million Dreams

New Orleans' music and culture always helped it endure hard times. For most people, funerals are always the worst of times, but the city’s unique jazz funeral tradition gave mourners a feeling of uplift. Drawing from his nonfiction book, Jason Berry explores the history of jazz funerals and the challenges to their continued practice in City of a Million Dreams, which screens virtually as part of the 2022 Ashland Independent Film Festival.

New Orleans is famous for its brass bands and the “second-liners,” the revelers who follow parading bands, literally dancing in the streets (as documented by photographer William Claxton, amongst others). Berry fully explains the connection between brass bands, the Mardi Gras Indians, and the benevolent societies, which originally supplied de facto funeral insurance policies to black New Orleanians. For those who need the context, Berry and his on-camera experts also explain how New Orleans jazz grew out of the roots of slavery and Congo Square, the gathering place, where slaves were allowed to congregate on Sundays.

To keep things real, Berry had the on-screen participation and consultation of “advisory producers” Dr. Michael White (of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and Original Liberty Jazz Band) and Deb “Big Red” Cotton, an online journalist, who chronicled the city’s brass band/second line scene. However, Berry’s documentary takes on unexpected tragic dimensions when Cotton is hit by a stray bullet while documenting a second line.

Indeed, there is considerable sorrow in
Million Dreams, despite the joyfulness of the music (which is terrific). Berry revisits the city’s darkest days, in the early 1980s and mid-1990s, when rampant crime threatened to derail the jazz funeral tradition. Of course, the film reflects on the disruption of Katrina, from White’s perspective (on the positive side, we hear some of the music he composed during the aftermath, recorded on his Blue Crescent album). Berry also necessarily ends on an uncertain note, with the practice of jazz funerals and second lining suspended due to Covid shut-downs and social distancing.

Even with the tragedy and sadness,
Million Dreams delivers a lot of good vibes and good will. It gives the legendary Danny Barker credit for renewing and preserving the New Orleans music tradition. Berry also incorporates vintage archival footage of revered brass band leaders, like Harold Dejan and the Barbarins. We also hear extensively from Gregg Stafford, leader of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and NOLA stalwart John Boutte is heard over the closing credits singing a beautiful tribute to Cotton, written by White. It doesn’t get much more legit than that.

There is a lot of serious New Orleans cultural history in
Million Dreams, but there is also so much music and local flavor it never feels dry or scholarly. Frankly, if you have been to New Orleans, it will make you hungry for etouffee. The city has made a dramatic comeback in the years after Katrina, which is gratifying, but Berry and company remind us there are still neighborhoods that are struggling. Regardless, it is a treat to see and hear so many great NOLA musicians in one film. Very highly recommended for anyone who loves the Crescent City, City of a Million Dreams screens virtually through April 10th via the Ashland Independent Film Festival.