The Jazz SingerThe Jazz Singer
Festival Daily
20 lis 11
Day 5 - Four Ages of Jazz

Jazz and cinema are the two great art forms of the twentieth century. Their styles and fashions have been marked by the century's events and, in turn, have helped shape it. But their relationship with each other has not always been an easy one. Jazz may have provided some of the most memorable scores for films, particularly the compositions of Duke Ellington (Anatomy of a Murder), Miles Davis (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud), Elmer Bernstein (The Man with the Golden Arm, Sweet Smell of Success and Some Came Running) and, more recently, Terence Blanchard (most of Spike Lee's films). However, as a subject it has not fared so well on the big screen.

Filmmakers aiming to capture the essence of a music imbued with such a strong cultural identity have often come up short, either salaciously exploiting the seamier side of musicians' lives or failing to capture the excitement of their subject. Worst of all, the jazz scene has frequently been employed as little more than a clichéd canvass upon which a drama plays out.  

The four films showing as part of the 'All That Jazz' strand at this year's festival are located at different points in the music's history, chronologically, geographically and stylistically. Together, they offer an entry point for exploring a complex and challenging sound.

The Jazz Singer (1927) is probably best known for being Hollywood's first 'Talkie', even though much of the film was still shot without diegetic sound. Alan Crosland's film was also a platform for the music hall performer Al Jolson, who plays aspiring Jewish vaudeville singer Jackie Rabinowitz. Changing his name to Jack Robin, he goes against his fathers wishes for him to become the fifth generation Cantor, in order to seek fame and fortune in show business. A classic rags-to-riches tale, it is something a curio due to the racial politics of the time, with George 'blacking-up' to sing; a widely practised convention due to black artists' inability to play to white audiences (however, Jolson himself was known to be a supporter of civil rights). But the way it captures the angst of one man's desire for success and recognition are palpable. And the performances, particularly 'Blue Skies' and 'Mammy', remain impressive.

The Jazz Singer was the last gasp of Fitzgerald's jazz age before the depression hit America (even in Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which came out the following year, the representation of New York's glitz and glamour in the film's fabulous montage sequence is imbued with threat and danger). Thereafter, the jazz scene would take on a darker, moodier tinge.

Robert Altman's homage to jazz and the city of his birth is the most recent film in the programme. But chronologically, Kansas City (1996) is set just a few years after The Jazz Singer. A lush, richly textured drama centring on two women caught up in an illicit world of drugs, prostitution and political corruption, Altman's ensemble piece may not equal his 1975 account of the country music scene, Nashville, but it features one of the finest jazz soundtracks recorded by a band assembled specifically for a film (a dream collective of David Newman, Ron Carter, Christian McBride, Don Byron, Russell Malone, Olu Dara, Nicholas Peyton, Louis Nash and Mark Whitfield). There is even a fictional play-off between Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins (Joshua Redman and Craig Handy).

If the central characters of Altman's film, played by Miranda Richardson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, fail to convince, Harry Belafonte more than makes up for them with his towering performance as the kingpin of the city's underworld. Belafonte, whose remarkable life is profiled in one of the festival's competition films, Sing Your Song, plays Seldom Seen with rasp and rancour, a surprising departure from his previous roles. But Altman draws out one of the actor's finest performances and his monologues on racism and crime are the film's dramatic highlight. Kansas City also features some impressive action set-ups. And if the end results are far from perfect, the film is worth seeing for Belafonte, the stunning period recreation and the incredible band.

Charlie Parker once said, 'Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art.' Art is also what Clint Eastwood aspired to with Bird, his celebrated 1988 bio-pic of Parker. More than merely recounting the jazz legend's life, from his humble beginnings through to the height of his fame and subsequent demise, it is a series of fragments: memories, dreams and missed opportunities. For Parker's wife, the past is made up of regrets, chance encounters and a life derailed by the agonies of drug abuse; for Parker, the past is lucid fragments between highs or guilt-ridden memories plaguing his waking thoughts. But at the heart of this maelstrom is his music he made.

Charlie Parker was the greatest practitioner of bebop and arguably the best saxophonist that ever lived. Eastwood's film, above all, is a celebration of that remarkable talent. But to understand what drove Parker to such greatness, he skilfully manoeuvres his way through the detritus of the musician's personal life. Parker's was a troubled and haunted existence, but also one of great accomplishment and recognition. Bird finds a perfect balance of both, aided in no small part by Forrest Whittaker's extraordinary performance.

If the home of jazz during the first half of the twentieth century was the US, its spiritual sibling was France. Paris was home to many musicians over the decades, including Charlie Parker. There, a black musician lived free of the shackles of racism and segregation, issues central to Altman and Eastwood's films. This relationship between two starkly different worlds lies at the heart of Bertrand Tavernier's extraordinary 'Round Midnight (1986). Loosely based on the lives of Bud Powell and Lester Young, it stars jazz legend Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner, an accomplished saxophonist living in 1950s Paris, who is gradually losing his battle against drug addiction. He meets and befriends Francis Borler, a jazz fan, played by Françoir Cluzet and based on the writer and jazz enthusiast Francis Paudras, who befriended Bud Powell. This relationship is the emotional core of a film that succeeds in creating an utterly credible world in which jazz is the central characters' lifeblood. The film was scored by Herbie Hancock and features other Miles Davis band alumni such as Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin, alongside Bobby Hutcherson and Freddie Hubbard. There is also an excellent cameo by Martin Scorsese, representing the more corrupt side of the music business. But in casting Gordon, Tavernier, himself a jazz obsessive, understood that the raging passions, high emotions and destructive side to this remarkable music could only be captured by someone who has lived the life.



Ian Haydn Smith

Editor, International Film Guide & Curzon Magazine
e-mail ihsmith@yahoo.co.uk


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