Life is not a spectator sport, as the saying goes, and — if you’re doing it right — neither is being part of the Cajun culture. As Abby Berendt Lavoi and Jeremey Lavoi’s loving documentary Roots of Fire makes clear, those who cherish their connection to this culture tend to go all-in, especially when it comes to the toe-tapping, accordion-infused music that’s been played for generations in Louisiana dance halls.
The film introduces viewers to award-winning contemporary Cajun musicians Wilson Savoy, Joel Savoy, Kelli Jones, Kristi Guillory, and Jourdan Thibodeaux, all of whom are much younger than the fans who tend to attend their shows — which is part of the reason they all worry that Cajun music’s days may be numbered. But they certainly aren’t willing to let anything go without a fight, especially if that fight can be fueled by homemade gumbo and a snazzy beat.
Berendt Lavoi and Lavoi capture several energetic music performances in Roots of Fire, but the scenes of traditions like an old-fashioned Mardi Gras celebration are equally compelling. Watching masked, clown-costumed revelers clamber over one another to nab a caged chicken that’s atop a tall pole (for the soup pot, of course) is a far cry from the boobs and beads of Bourbon Street that many viewers are likely to associate with the holiday. The film also offers a crash course in Cajun history that’s likely to be eye-opening for those who aren’t already familiar with it.
The end result is a passionate plea to, as Thibodeaux says several times over the course of the movie, “live the culture.” And whether you have roots in the Cajun community or not, you’ll be hard pressed not to want its traditions and heritage to be preserved for as long as possible after watching Roots of Fire. Pass the roux, and laissez les bon temps rouler!– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: This engrossing documentary offers a snapshot of the current Cajun and zydeco music scene from the point of view of young musicians carrying on traditions in Lafayette, Louisiana. While there are a few short lessons on the history of the music and of the migration of the Acadian people to the region, the focus is otherwise almost solely focused on the lives of people who have made a conscious choice to try to keep the music alive. Worldwide, there is an audience for the accordion-heavy sounds that emanate from the bayou but closer to home, the audience is greying and there are fewer places to play as clubs close down. But none of that matters when the time comes to step on a stage or don a costume to take part in Lafayette’s Mardi Gras celebration – a far cry from New Orleans’ annual debauchery – in a film that depicts the pure joy of performance.
Nikki Fowler: Nothing is more hypnotic than a trip to the deep South, specifically to Louisiana with its long alligator-filled riverways, juke joints, tasty beignets, crocodile sausage, and the infamous French Quarter with its undeniably rich culture. Roots of Fire charters the deep rich and muddy waters of five Grammy award-winning young Cajun musicians of Southwest Louisiana, introducing their music, language, food, life, and culture. The documentary briefly and eloquently explores the history of how the French arrived in Canada and teamed up with Native Americans to resisted the British in religion and conquest. They were becoming outcasts from the Northeast who landed in French-speaking Louisiana to become the community we now know as Cajun — part Native American, French, African, Spanish, Haitian, and German to name a few of the integrated ethnicities. A rich and multidimensional culture exploded with a unique language, food, music, and way of life. Due to the ability to ‘pass,’ many Cajuns were seen as white, and there was a conflict of identity about between who they really were. From a more countryside Mardi Gras and its cultural significance to food and local artists and their music-making process, Roots of Fire tells important stories about tradition and a culture that are looking to survive in a world inundated with modernism and technology.
Leslie Combemale For fans of all things Cajun, or lovers of roots music, or just for those curious about American subcultures, Roots of Fire really gets into South Louisiana-based life, especially as it centers around food and music. Quirky folks and passionate (often Grammy-nominated) musicians abound in the nearly two-hour stroll through old dance halls, dive bars, living rooms, and various outdoor gatherings. Looking for a cultural deep “dive” that is also a mellow cinematic experience? You’ll find it here.
Jennifer Merin ROOTS OF FIRE, a thoroughly entertaining documentary delve into Cajun culture — especially music and food. The film presents an engaging profile of a little-known, oft-misunderstood Louisiana-based American community. Co-directors Abby Berendt Lavoi and Jeremy Lavoi invite us into local Cajun dance halls, treat us to restaurant and residential kitchen visits and entertain us at a local grass roots Mardi Gras celebration unlike any you’ve imagined. They also give local folk and historians the opportunity to talk about the culture, its origins and history and their efforts to keep it alive. And, there are some surprising reveals about Cajun ethnicity and the long term impact of divisive racist distinction between Cajun and Creole. You’ll learn a lot while your toes are tapping to the lively music and your mouth is watering over the Etouffee, Jambalaya and Boudin. (I confess: I want me some right now!!!)
Sandie Angulo Chen: Roots of Fire is a delightful and insightful tribute to Cajun (and Creole) culture, music, and history. Directed by Abby Berendt Lavoi and Jeremy Lavoi, the documentary immerses audiences in the modern-day Cajun music scene based in Lafayette, Louisiana featuring interviews with and recordings of various prominent and Grammy-nominated Cajun musicians, producers, and families discussing the preservation of Cajun traditions. It’s powerful to witness this small, French-speaking community act in a collaborative and supportive way, ready to instruct a new generation how to pick up their fiddles and accordions and make music.
Loren King Watching Roots of Fire is like going to a Cajun music festival but with a few knowledgeable guides to enhance the experience. Directors Abby Berendt Lavoi and Jeremy Lavoi deliver a foot-stomping, accordion and fiddle-accompanied immediacy to the experience. But their film also celebrates the young-ish musicians who are at the forefront of making sure this Louisiana Acadians (or “cajun”) traditional dance music with deep historical roots endures — at least for now. They’re honest and accepting that as its dedicated older audience passes, it may not last beyond their generation. But thanks to this engaging and culturally significant film, it will live on.
Liz Whittemore Throw your assumptions out the window. The documentary Roots of Fire is an in-depth exploration of Cajun origins through music, cuisine, and the preservation of the culture. This tight-knit Louisiana community dispels racist misconceptions. “You’re either living your culture, or you’re killing your culture.” This one sentence, heard several times in the film, perfectly sums up this joyous celebration of the Cajun people. Forget the commercialized Mardi Gras. The local version looks vastly different, with participants donning handcrafted costumes that look like something between a living pinata and Ren Faire. Traditional games, food, history, and (of course) music create an all-inclusive environment. Roots of Fire brings old and new together to remind viewers you can simultaneously honor your heritage and evolve.
Cate Marquis What a delightful, music-filled film! Fiddle, accordion and lively dance tunes sung in French suffuse Roots of Fire, a documentary about the Cajun people. the film gives us insights on the music, culture and history of these unique French-speaking folk of southwest Louisiana who migrated from Acadia in Nova Scotia, Canada long ago. Presented through the young musicians who play Cajun music and work to preserve the culture, we learn what Cajun culture is and is not – not all white nor all French but a mix of Creole, Black, French, Native and other roots, sharing the French language and a special joie de vivre. Some of the earliest recordings of Cajun music were made by Black musicians, these musician/historians note, and the line between Cajun and Creole is as fuzzy as the line between Cajun music and Zydeco. Much like their gumbo, Cajun culture is a mix of ingredients but all sharing the French language, Acadian traditions and French Catholic beliefs of their ancestors. With music and musicians at every turn, and a wonderful glimpse at their own very different version of Mardi Gras, Roots of Fire delivers fresh insights into who the Cajuns are but the biggest delight is all that music – joyful, toe-tapping and irresistible. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Title: Roots of Fire
Directors: Abby Berendt Lavoi and Jeremy Lavoi
Release Date: September 22, 2023
Running Time: 85 minutes
Language: English, French (Cajun)
Screenwriters: Abby Berendt Lavoi and Jeremy Lavoi (Documentary)
Distribution Company: First Run Features
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
Edited by Jennifer Merin