Jason Berry’s City Of A Million Dreams tells the history of New Orleans by examining the cultural significance of jazz funeral processions. The writer/director covers a wide range within the documentary, seemingly leaving no stone unturned. But if one does not love jazz or New Orleans, can the narrative still resonate?
Deb Cotton fell in love with New Orleans during her first visit and swiftly made it her permanent residence. Under the pseudonym Big Red Cotton, Cotton began writing for the free alternate paper Gambit Weekly. Through this journalism gig, she gets to explore and immerse herself in the culture of The Big Easy. Early on, jazz funeral processions swept her up. Cotton gives anyone unfamiliar with the city’s unique culture and proceedings in a way that feels natural.
Concurrently to her thread, City Of A Million Dreams introduces viewers to Dr. Michael White, a city-born clarinetist. He peppers in the origins and meanings of various dances or musical styles while reminding audiences how African-Americans came to this country. This serves as a potent reminder of how several marginalized people attempt to keep their traditions and cultures alive.
“…tells the history of New Orleans by examining the cultural significance of jazz funeral processions.”
The film also looks at the dark side of these events: the violence that can erupt in them. In 2013, Cotton, among others, was shot. After several surgeries, she’s on the road to mending. However, she wasn’t the intended target, and as long as someone with a grudge knows that a person will be there, such tragedies can still happen.
The documentary is the rather standard talking-head/archival footage fare one would expect. However, the filmmaker uses photographs to striking effect, racking focus in a unique way drawing the eye to specific spots on any given picture. Plus, City Of A Million Dreams is much more focused on its emotional narrative and the deep history of New Orleans to need much style.
See, Berry and his talented crew suck viewers in with the liveliness of Orleanians. They then get their hooks in deeper by crafting a lovesong to the beautiful, historic city and reel you in with the brilliant exposé on racial tensions. It is shockingly powerful stuff, making the lack of style entirely forgivable.
City Of A Million Dreams makes up for its lack of style with sheer emotional impact and unique perspective. It’s a fascinating look at jazz funeral processions, which most around the country probably don’t truly understand. I did not, but know I do, and you will too by the time the movie is over.