Art Works Blog

Sound and Vision---Jazz and Film

Charlie Parker, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. 1947 by William P. Gottlieb, courtesy of Library of Congress

So what makes a good jazz film? Depends on what you mean by a “jazz film.” Jazz seemed to have a great influence on the American filmmaker John Cassavetes’ work, which used improvisation---or at least the appearance of improvisation---to great effect. The connection is made plain in his first movie, Shadows (1959), which looks at Beat-era New York City among hipsters and jazz musicians and interracial relationships, with a soundtrack by Charles Mingus. The influence spread internationally, on directors like Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1960 film Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) used jump cuts and unusual rhythm to resemble an avant-garde jazz composition (the score by jazz pianist Martial Solal didn’t hurt), and Michelangelo Antonioni, whose 1966 film Blow-Up took a look at the “Swinging London” of the 1960s with a soundtrack by Herbie Hancock.*

Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the courtroom drama with Jimmy Stewart and Lee Remick, may not have anything to do with jazz, but Duke Ellington’s soundtrack is a knockout (and his cameo, playing piano with Stewart, is a hoot). Sweet Smell of Success (1957) at least has a jazz musician as one of the plot points (jazz guitarist John Pisano dubbed the actor’s musical playing), with Chico Hamilton* providing the house band in the movie (and noted film composer Elmer Bernstein writing the rest of the score). Chico even got some lines in the movie. Both are pretty strong movies with great writing and even better acting, but the jazz-driven soundtracks provided an additional component that interacts with the story, like a good soundtrack should.

Movies actually about jazz are a bit more difficult. Do you focus on scandal---some drug or alcohol abuse? Or do you focus on the music, something more difficult to make “dramatic” for movie purposes. For The Glenn Miller Story (1954), with the lead role played faithfully (if a bit blandly) by Jimmy Stewart, the writers basically made up a lot of the “facts” of Miller’s life in order to jack up the drama. Nice soundtrack though. And Stormy Weather (1943), which is loosely based on Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s life, is best watched with a remote in hand to skip the skimpy story and go to the outstanding performances by Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the amazing dance team the Nicholas Brothers, who fly through the air to Calloway’s band in one of the coolest dance numbers ever filmed.

For The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), the focus was on drug addiction, with Frank Sinatra playing a junkie jazz drummer. The melodrama is in full swing, but what’s swinging even better is Elmer Bernstein’s steaming soundtrack played by Shorty Rogers’ band. And it’s pretty much impossible to tell the story of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker without delving into his alcohol and drug abuse and bouts of madness. Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film Bird rambles a bit (and at two- and-a-half hours, is a bit long), but Forest Whitaker’s performance as Parker is mesmerizing, and really, it’s hard to fault spending two hours or so listening to Parker play his alto on the soundtrack. (I might add that the documentary on Thelonious Monk, Straight No Chaser, that Eastwood produced the same year is even better…mostly because it has the real Monk in it.) And let’s not forget jazz legend Dexter Gordon* in his acting debut as a self-destructive jazz musician in Paris in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film Round Midnight. The writing is underwhelming, but every time Gordon is on the screen he steals the show. And Herbie Hancock’s soundtrack deserved the Oscar he received for it.

The soundtrack music was one of the best things about Mo’ Better Blues, Spike Lee’s 1990 look at the life of a jazz trumpeter trying to balance his private and professional lives. Although I found the movie uneven, it does have some stellar moments, many of them when the band is performing. The soundtrack featured the Branford Marsalis* Quartet with trumpeter Terence Blanchard (who also wrote the score), in addition to cuts from John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman,* among others.

Probably my favorite jazz-related movie is one that got mixed reviews from critics when it came out, Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999). I loved the parody of the biopic approach Allen takes, with authorities like Nat Hentoff* discussing the fictional main character, jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (played at his seedy best by Sean Penn), the world’s second-best jazz guitarist. The film shows that being a great musician doesn’t mean being a great person, and the insecurities and paranoia of a working artist (embodied by Ray’s obsession over Django Reinhardt, the world’s best jazz guitarist). And Samantha Morton gives an outstanding performance as the mute girlfriend with an enormous appetite. Then there is the music: 1930s guitar jazz, played convincingly by Howard Alden (who also showed Penn the fingering for the solos so he could convincingly act like he was playing). So it’s funny, poignant, and has great music. What more could you want?

You’ll notice I skipped a couple of the big ensemble productions of the ‘80s and ‘90s: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984) and Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996). I think both directors are among the best, and love many of their films, but neither of these two disappointments are among them. However, I will say that I own both soundtracks because the music is exceptional, especially on Kansas City, which had younger musicians such as Craig Handy, Joshua Redman, and James Carter playing jazz legends Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Ben Webster, respectively.

So what’s your favorite jazz movie? Let us know by posting in the comments section.

*NEA Jazz Master: Learn more about the NEA Jazz Masters Lifetime Honors here. And visit our News Room to learn about the new 2013 honorees.

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