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New Orleans

B+

New Orleans

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Hollywood has a long tradition of telling quintessentially black stories through the eyes of well-meaning white folk. From 1947, New Orleans is representative of this phenomenon, ostensibly recounting the birth of jazz, but only as the backdrop for the star-crossed romance of white gambling impresario Arturo de Córdova and opera-singing heiress Dorothy Patrick. As a romance, New Orleans is predictable and tame, but the presence of Billie Holiday—who, in her only major film role, plays Patrick's blues-singing maid—makes it far more notable. The invariably camera-friendly Louis Armstrong, cast against type as a singing trumpeter named Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, co-stars as Holiday's beau, and it's no surprise that the scenes featuring the two legends have an electricity missing from the rest of the film. As befits a movie that only comes alive when the dialogue stops and the jazz begins, New Orleans' musical numbers—most notably Holiday's soulful, melancholy rendition of "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans"—say far more about the liberating and unifying powers of jazz than any of its dialogue. Holiday largely disappears from New Orleans about half an hour in, and her presence is sorely missed, particularly when Patrick soullessly oversings two versions of "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans," neither of which comes close to emulating the understated power Holiday brings to the song. Though worth seeing for its Holiday footage, New Orleans would have been a lot more resonant had the charismatic jazz legends been more than just terrific frosting on a stale cake.