Author and journalist Jason Berry has certainly not been coy about his love for the city of New Orleans, or the cultural and musical traditions that hail from the fabled Louisiana metropolis. Berry was pretty clear about it in his 2018 book City of a Million Dreams, and he keeps the love going in his new documentary film of the same name.
It’s a movie of jazz funerals, second lines, roof dancing and swamp dwelling; of shootings and costumes and death, but ultimately of life and the living. In a nutshell, Dreams occupies a dreamlike space that encapsulates a world henceforth not known well to outsiders. Here now, maybe for the first time—or at least the most comprehensive time—we get glimpses into the inner workings of benevolent Black societies, the histories that converged to make New Orleans and its jazz funerals what they are and the people who work them, attend them, facilitate them or otherwise toil in a seemingly never-ending effort to keep the culture surrounding death alive. As one interviewee puts it in the film, the funeral is the last thing you’re ever going to do for somebody. Why not send them out with a bang?
Through interviews, narrative snippets and what was likely hundreds of hours of footage, Berry begins to unearth the trajectory of the jazz funeral and its so-called second line, that dizzying party that takes to the streets with a band to lead the deceased to their final resting place. Dreams taps into everything from slavery and the 1804 Haitian revolt that would ultimately play such a massive role in the shaping of Louisiana culture. Elsewhere, the film intersperses sobering meditations on Hurricane Katrina, artist retreat songwriting sessions and the keepers of history. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a city and her people, of a culture that regards death not as some specter of finality, but as a waypoint in a journey.
Berry himself comes to the Center for Contemporary Arts this week for a one-off -screening of the film and to engage in conversation with the audience. For those with even a passing interest in New Orleans, jazz funerals and so on, this is the thing for which you’ve been waiting.
6 pm Thursday, July 7 $15. CCA 1050 Old Pecos Trail, (505) 982-1338
+The music; the history; the joyousness
City of a Million Dreams
Directed by Berry
Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 90 min.