Reel Life: Flick Pix
Lively introduction to Cajun culture and new generation of musicians carrying it forward
By Nora Lee Mandel
Roots of Fire
Directed and Produced by Abby Berendt Lavoi & Jeremey Lavoi
USA. 84 mins. Not Rated
With: Kristi Guillory, Kelli Jones, Joel Savoy, Wilson Savoy, and Jourdan Thibodeaux
Performances by Pine Leaf Boys, Feufollet, Jourdan Thibodeaux et Les Rôdailleurs, Bonsoir Catin, T'monde, Anna Laura Edmiston, and Roddie Romero
Released by First Run Features - Opens in Los Angeles and Newburyport, MA on September 22, 2023; September 28 in Durham, NC; October 6 in New Orleans; October 13 in Boise, ID and Corvallis, OR
Cajun and Creole culture of south Louisiana has surfaced into mainstream notice over the decades. The music can be heard from Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya” (1952); on Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) track "That Was Your Mother" with Rockin’ Doopsie; to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Shooting Straight in the Dark (1986) track “Down at the Twist and Shout” with Beausoleil, who were also regularly on NPR in A Prairie Home Companion. Cajun and Creole musicians were seen in documentary shorts by Les Blank, Spend It All (1971), Dry Wood (1973), Hot Pepper (1973), and Yum, Yum, Yum! (1990); in Robert Mugge’s The Kingdom of Zydeco (1994), Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous (2000), and Zydeco Crossroads (2015); plus more widely seen and heard in Jim McBride’s noir The Big Easy (1987).
As proudly recounted in Roots of Fire, contemporary Cajun and Creole musicians appear on almost every Grammy nomination list for categories variously named “Best Traditional Folk Album”/ “Best Regional Roots Album”. They were also included on HBO’s Louisiana-set Tremé soundtrack. The newer bands, only some members with family surnames “Savoy” and “Balfa” familiar to older fans, are getting this national notice and are the focus of this lively musical documentary. With performances mostly from the annual Festivals Acadiens et Créoles (coming up again next month), the music, cooking, and Catholic holiday celebrations covered cinéma verité are mostly around Lafayette.
Five personable young musicians are the primary narrators (and they play in each other’s bands):
Jourdan Thibodeaux, in cowboy hat, speaks forcefully, again and again, about the importance of preserving one’s culture by living it. His emphasis is in reaction to the denigration and humiliation their grandparents suffered when they were forced to give up their language and customs in school.
Joel Savoy describes founding Valcour Records in 2006, “on property that has been in my family for eight generations”. He records performers that showcase the inclusive, multi-ethnic (Indigenous, Metis, African-American, French, Spanish and more) roots of Cajun culture into the 21st century, a diversity he credits repeatedly.
Kristi Guillory mines songs from the field recordings in the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she used to work with the collections. Her mother looks through her voluminous photo albums of her daughter’s career: “Other girls were in ballet and cheerleading, but she followed old men playing accordion.”
Wilson Savoy describes the “symbiosis” of playing dance music non-stop for a participatory audience. Festivals are trying to replace the traditional, dusty dance halls, that have mostly disappeared.
Fiddler Kelli Jones is the sole out-of-towner; she fell in love with the music and married a Savoy. She’s evidently stayed longer than the marriage lasted.
The history of how the persecuted Acadians of Nova Scotia became the Cajuns of Louisiana is illustrated in animations (without the usual reference to Longfellow’s ”Evangeline”). An accompanying Reading List includes The History of the Acadians of Louisiana by performer/songwriter Zachary Richard, and musical histories by Ann and Marc Savoy (parents of Joel and Wilson).
All the interviewees stress the importance of keeping the old traditions fresh and creative, writing new songs, using new instrumentation, such as electric or steel guitars, to attract younger fans, and touches like crowd surfing. Yet their musical progenitors are honored in cemetery rituals. Several praised the new French immersion curriculum in local schools for maintaining the culture, even as fans come from all over to partake.
Though few complete performances are included, out takes are compiled into a “digital shorts” web series. However, I had to search further online to confirm the charismatic accordionist playing with Jourdan Thibodeaux et Les Rôdailleurs was Cedric Watson, a Texan transplant who also has his own zydeco band Bijou Creole.
Roots of Fire is a wonderful introduction for those new to Cajun music, while long-time fans (I’ve been dancing to Cajun bands at folk festivals for over 30 years) will delight in this introduction to the next generation of musicians assuring the tradition continues.
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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