I should be too ashamed to admit this in a public forum, but I’ve never fully understood the appeal of zydeco. My preferred mode of background-noise Louisiana kitsch is New Orleans brass, which hits a lot closer to home – literally, since I live on a major second line route where brass & bounce reverberate down the street practically every other week. I’m most used to hearing zydeco mixed with cornball swamp pop in French Quarter tourist shops, seconds at a time as I pass by on my way to a downtown theater or bar. I may be from Southeast Louisiana, but I’m a city boy through & through, and the routine regurgitation of folksy local traditions for spend-crazy out-of-towners always raises the hairs on neck. I was delighted to have those biases challenged by the Les Blank documentary J’ai Été Au Bal (I Went to the Dance), though, which recently screened in a 4K digital restoration at The Broad to celebrate this year’s Jazz Fest happenings down the street. Blank’s Always for Pleasure is just about the only documentary that has genuinely captured New Orleans culture onscreen in a way that doesn’t make this local cynic cringe, so I very much needed this extension of his humanist awe with Louisiana to the meanings & traditions of zydeco. To prime the pump, the programmers also invited musician Michael Doucet to open the show with his zydeco band BeauSoleil, since he is one of the few surviving performers from the film still alive to provide insight & context. The music was good, the crowd of WWOZ devotees was lively & chatty, and the film made a convincing argument for an artform I’ve been knee-jerk dismissive of my entire life. It was a lovely evening.
It’s a shame I didn’t see I Went to the Dance when I was in my Folk Punk phase a couple decades ago; its contextual positioning of zydeco as raucous, resilient roots music would have clicked a lot sooner & louder. In my defense, though, a large part of this film is about zydeco musicians having to explain the artform’s appeal to each generation of bratty children who are distracted from their heritage by popular music fads like rock ‘n roll. It turns out even swamp pop has its merits as a youth-outreach genre hybrid, attempting to inject a little Beatles & 60s New Orleans R&B into the usual zydeco formula to make it palatable for the kids. I Went to the Dance is more straightforward as an informational doc on the linear history of zydeco than Always for Pleasure‘s loose portrait of local Mardi Gras customs, possibly due to the influence of Blank’s more traditionalist co-director Chris Strachwitz. It provides a quick historical context for the migration of Cajun & Creole communities to Southwest Louisiana, moves on to explain the basic compositional structures & instrumentations that distinguish zydeco as a genre, and then tracks its struggles to remain popular yet authentic as it welcomed influence from blues, soul, country, and rock fads that energized the core musicians’ children throughout the decades. By the time the film concludes with a contemporary Jazz Fest performance from the R&B-infused Clifton “King of Zydeco” Chenier, a backyard cookout performance of the 80s novelty swamp pop hit “(Don’t Mess with) My Toot Toot”, and a cheeseball fais-dodo rock-out from what appeared to be the Reaganite frat bros of zydeco, I was fully won over – my cynicism thoroughly, methodically replaced with a smile.
I don’t think this academically minded zydeco explainer would be worth all that much without the Les Blank touch, though. As useful as it is in providing historical & cultural context for where the genre comes from and what pop-music indignities it has to endure for survival, it’s Blank’s loving, amused observations of Louisiana customs that qualify J’ai Été Au Bal as substantial filmmaking. The dancefloor audience is just as important as the fiddlers, washboarders, and accordionists onstage, as Blank’s camera searches contemporary bars & archival photographs for signs of vitality & exuberance in the people that made this music popular because it gave them an excuse to get tipsy & dance. Since he moved his camera too far inland to capture the wetland landscapes that have so quickly eroded in the past few decades, the Louisiana he captures here is exactly the one I remember growing up with “down the road” in St. Bernard Parish around when this was made. It’s also uncannily accurate to Louisiana today, as long as you avert your gaze from concrete & billboards to instead focus on the hand-painted signs & D.I.Y. dance parties that are forever encroached on but never fully extinguished here. There’s an authenticity to Blank’s portraits of this state as a people that I have found in no other outsider media, making him one of the most fully integrated Tulane University bros who ever passed through New Orleans for an education and never had the heart to fully leave us behind. It appears his estate is keeping that work alive & up to date by producing physical media restorations of his work to sell at high rates to university libraries as education tools, which is great but doesn’t fully convey how entertaining & endearing they are for a casual audience.
When I report that the Jazz Fest-adjacent screening of J’ai Été Au Bal at The Broad was a lovely evening, I’m brushing aside a lot of technical hiccups that disrupted the flow of the film. Getting the screening going in earnest involved the theater staff abandoning the DCP and climbing on a ladder to hook up a Vimeo stream with a laptop, an HDMI cable, and a smartphone hotspot crammed inside the projector box. There were many stops & starts before that Plan C was launched, which meant that the first fifteen minutes of the film were frequently broken up by premature Q&As with Blank’s surviving collaborators and bonus performances from Doucet sans band. If I’m not mistaken, there were also impromptu chime-ins from Belizaire the Cajun director Glen Pitre from the front seats of the audience. Some moviegoers’ patience was tested beyond its limits that night, but I soaked it all up as a Community Event, the strangest screening I’ve been to since The Broad ran The Mothman Prophecies a couple months ago. It also didn’t stress me out because I knew even while watching J’ai Été Au Bal that my first viewing would not be my last. Every year I squeeze in a screening of Always for Pleasure as a quick, convenient way to get into the Mardi Gras spirit (usually while working on costumes), and I can easily see throwing on Blank’s zydeco doc for the same purpose at the start of every Spring festival season. Jazz Fest is going to happen in my neighborhood regardless of whether I’m in the mood; French Quarter Fest is just a few blocks away from where I work. It was untenable to think I could live a full, happy life in Louisiana without appreciating swamp pop or zydeco, and I’m glad this movie is being kept in distro to help my cynical ass lighten up.