I Went to the Dance Image

SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! I Went to the Dance is one of several documentaries made by Les Blank on the subject of southwest Louisiana’s Cajun culture. The movie emphasizes the region’s music, exploring its history, its many transformations, and its place in the singular lifestyle of the Cajun people. Initially released in 1989, the film has now received the spit shine of a 5K restoration. How it’s better than a 4K restoration or even a 3K restoration, I can’t tell you. At some point, we’re just throwing out numbers. All I can say is that it looks good.

I Went to the Dance itself has the usual Les Blank seal of quality. We’re introduced to a wide variety of characters that only southwest Louisiana could produce. Each of them has a pocketful of stories at the ready, each with a tried-and-true punchline. Then there’s the trademark Cajun accent, which sounds somewhere between French and Jamaican — not as common today, but pull over to a McDonald’s in Opelousas, and you might get an earful. It’s hard to think of a culture in America that’s as different from the rest as Cajun culture. As the documentary details, Cajun culture is a meshing of the French Canadians and freed slaves that settled in Louisiana. Both groups shared music and food, which resulted in what we think of today as being creole.

“…emphasizes the region’s music, exploring its history, its many transformations, and its place in the singular lifestyle of the Cajun people.”

Along with the colorful interviews are a series of live performances. You get a taste of Cajun music from every era up to the ’80s. It’s a comprehensive yet concise introduction to an underappreciated variant of American folk music, despite having little relation to American folk music everywhere else in the country. In fact, one musician laments the “Americanization” of Cajun music. Only in Cajun country can an American lament the Americanization of an American melting pot of music.

As you watch the old-timers — black and white — sing in French and speak with such passion on their distinctive genre of music, you start to get wistful thinking about how unlikely it is for it to happen again. With the internet, most of the world is engaging with the same culture, taking the same influences, and establishing the same points of reference. The idea of a singular culture springing up organically is a non-starter.

If you judge the quality of a culture by its music and food, then it doesn’t get much better than creole. The music sways between mournful and silly but with a primal passion either way. Voices howl and chirp rather than sing. Fiddles and accordions sacrifice melody for action, giving every folktale the ambiance of sweaty angst. There’s literally nothing like it, and Les Blank captures it better than anyone else could in I Went to the Dance.

I Went to the Dance screened at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

I Went to the Dance (1989)

Directed and Written: Les Blank, Chris Strachwitz

Starring: Clifton Chenier, Marc Savoy, Ann Savoy, Boozoo Chavis, Dewey Balfa, Paul Daigle, Alphonse Ardoin, BeauSoleil, John Delafose, Barry Jean Ancelet, Wayne Toups, etc.

Movie score: 9/10

I Went to the Dance Image

"…along with the colorful interviews are a series of live performances"

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