There is a certain magic and fanfare to a day spent flying around on roller coasters, playing games, and taking a reprieve from life’s trials and tribulations. The kind of magic that comes from amusement parks is an eternally infectious energy, and it is through the sight of a Louisianan theme park, greeted by the populace with applause, laughter, and a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” that this sensation is captured by freshman filmmaker and long-time YouTube documentarian Jake Williams for his feature-length effort.
To those unfamiliar, Williams is the operator of “Bright Sun Films,” a YouTube channel and production company dedicated to the examination of abandoned places, bankrupt entities, and canceled media. A deft combination of detailed research, sharp storytelling, and even a pinch of urban exploration has made his work popular on the platform, and it should come as no surprise that 2021’s Closed For Storm bears many of his trademarks.
The film examines the story of a promising theme park whose potential was cut short by a wealth of circumstances. Christened “Jazzland” in 2000, the New Orleans East amusement park started strong, yet had found itself operating at a loss in its second year. Things were looking up when major player Six Flags bought and rebranded the park as their own. But little did anyone know that, come 2005, the future of this young attraction would be washed away by a brutal storm…
Through interviews, archival materials, and an on-the-ground examination of the site itself, Williams pieces together the past, present, and possible futures of this locale and the impact it had and may have. Closed For Storm’s strengths come in the more emotional angle of the story. Objectively speaking there isn’t much to the story when you get down to it, largely thanks to its short lifespan. But Williams, by depicting the people behind the place, those wishing to salvage it, and locals from the surrounding area, lends the tale a desperately needed human angle.
Heightening this engagement is the jaw-dropping cinematography. With no director of photography employed, the camera crew shoot the interviews conventionally, but afford the park the million-dollar treatment. Majestic drone photography courtesy of Brian and Katie Siskind, and seriously eerie nocturnal explorations paint the picture of a near-haunted locale. A giant entity, trapped in time, left to twist in the wind by bureaucratic politicking and its former owners cutting and running. Something of a recurring theme in Williams’s popular Abandoned series.
To amplify every emotion is the almost ridiculously resonant score by Matthew Jordan Leeds. With his biggest claim to fame being scores for episodes of the melodramatic Netflix teen series Elite, Leeds is offered a chance to break out into fully orchestrated dramatics and grabs the opportunity by the throat. For my money, few scores in recent memory have attempted this level of sheer romanticism for the subject matter (let alone at all), making it a treat to hear a documentary score eschew minimalist ambience in favor of full-blooded fervor.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t note the flaws. While smaller technical errors and the occasional poor quality of archival materials are easily overlooked, Closed For Storm suffers from two major issues, one technical and one structural. The technical problem lies in audio mixing. Leeds’s score pummels Williams’s narration and most dialog it sits under, making it hard to parse out what is being disseminated. With a score as intense and colorful as this one, you needn’t pump up the jam so hard in film as that’s what the album is for.
The structural problems come with the way Williams crafts his narrative. First is in the odd placement of his own narration. After spending several minutes using only interviews and archival footage, Williams (and the loud-as-hell score) barnstorm the scene, making for a jarring shift in tone. It comes off as profoundly off and it takes a while for the narration to settle in as a full-on part of the picture. Some docs are best served without narration; just look at Irene Taylor Brodsky’s _beware the slenderman or Spike Lee’s Bad 25. Some are best served by an omnipresent narrator, exemplified brilliantly by Williams’s own work. Simply put: a lane must be picked, and more importantly, the approach established at the outset. The failure to do so results in the effort feeling somewhat disjointed. It is possible to use all elements evenly, and that very much is the approach Williams takes, but the presence of the narrator should be established early enough so the audience is aware of them, thus helping to improve the work’s flow.
Of greater importance though, is that even with the human angle in place, the film does still feel spread a little too thin. Again, Six Flags New Orleans had only been around for five years tops and in decay for over a decade and a half thereafter. And while more issues and events intersect with the park’s history, they are largely pushed back in favor of keeping it about the park. Points for staying on topic must be doled out, but there comes a point where testimonials and exploration can’t hold back the nagging feeling that the subject might have been better served as a shorter work. Luckily for Williams, there are enough of those human moments to save Closed For Storm from tumbling off that precipice into overt dead air. Poignant recollections and excellent montages chief among the saving graces.
At the day’s end, Closed For Storm is a film whose strengths exceed its weaknesses, and as a result, crafts a compelling portrait of a short-lived theme park, touching on the socioeconomic state of New Orleans East, businesses in turmoil, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the ways in which fate can often derail just about anything in the process. More importantly, this is perhaps proof-positive that Bright Sun Films has plenty of potential beyond excellent 20-minute examinations of entities and places left to rot away. With time, effort, and the resources cultivated over the years, I hope to see Jake Williams become a greater force in documentary filmmaking, taking to the field to craft feature-length tales of the subjects that stir him to his craft. To put it plainly; the man’s got the knack, now let’s see what he does with it.