By February 27, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

A case of art imitating art.


We love movies. Hell, we love movies almost as much as we love music. But unlike creative American forms such as jazz, rock and country, movies are no more dead or alive today than they’ve ever been, which bodes well for cinema’s future. Or sounds its death knell. Whatever. We love ’em regardless.

Combining these two loves, however, can be troublesome. Hollywood (and its offshore equivalents) has a fairly lousy track record when it comes to making movies about actual jazz musicians, typically screwing up the music, the history and—more often than not—the movie itself. Television is really no better in this regard. There are exceptions, of course. Today, we’ll talk about the worst failures, and the rare successes. We’ll even bend genres a little. What we won’t talk about are documentaries, which have an uneven, but completely different, track record. We’ll combine our commentary to fictional movies and biographical portrayals.

Despite the first successful talking picture being called “The Jazz Singer”, neither that movie or Hollywood in general really had any interest in jazz until the early 1940’s, when a couple of splashy Negro-centric revues called “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky” were released. The presence of Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and other genuine jazz players notwithstanding, the emphasis here was more on the shucking and jiving of actors like Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Mantan Moreland, and the safe pop stylings of Cab Calloway and Lena Horne. At the time, one supposes these were something of a breakthrough, in that they employed a lot of African-American talent, and were at least partly marketed to white audiences, but in hindsight, they fall victim to every stereotype and pigeonhole one can imagine. And they certainly ain’t about jazz. They aren’t however, without their charms. Check out one of the great dance sequences ever filmed, featuring the Nicholas Brothers, here.

"More blowing, less brooding", insists Doris Day

“More blowing, less brooding”, insists Doris Day

Subsequently, and in stunningly predictable fashion, most movies about jazz cast white actors in lead roles, and achieved at best mixed results. “Young Man with a Horn”, Michael Curtiz’s potboiler with Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall, purports to be a semi-biographical account of Bix Biederbecke’s self-destruction in the early days of jazz. Simply put, this movie has nothing to do with Bix, and fails in other ways that have more to do with the heavy breathing of Douglas and Bacall than they do with Curtiz or the script. Harry James’ trumpet score doesn’t help to elevate this above the realm of musical soap opera. Doris Day, interestingly, is actually pretty good as the sympathetic, small-town girl who Douglas’ character should be with, and her singing is equally—and typically—inoffensive here.

Another attempt was that made by producer-director-actor (and occasional cornet player) Jack Webb in his 1955 film “Pete Kelly’s Blues”. Based on Webb’s radio series of the same name, it was a fictional account of an early—and glaringly white—jazz band trying to succeed in the face of broads, booze and gangsters. It has some of the most over-the-top noir dialogue one can imagine but ultimately it’s better than most movies of its ilk. Singer Peggy Lee was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of a flawed chanteuse, and an appearance by Ella Fitzgerald and a score by good players like Matty Matlock elevate this beyond what one might expect from the man who brought us Dragnet. Apparently Sgt. Friday found jazz musicians less worrisome than those hippies he chased around later on, in the late 1960’s. Webb actually loved jazz, and it shows a bit here. Dig Lee Marvin on clarinet, by the way.

Biopics about popular, white bandleaders with varying connections to jazz were typically vehicles for songs and stars, and don’t have much in the way of jazz or history in them. Benny Goodman, in a truly awful picture, and Glenn Miller, in a much better film elevated at least a little bit by star Jimmy Stewart, were most notably given this treatment, as were the Dorsey Brothers and Gene Krupa. The “Fabulous Dorseys”, starring the bandleaders as themselves, is pretty bad, but notably features Art Tatum in his only film appearance, along with a jam session of Tatum, the Dorseys, Charlie Barnett and others. Watch the jam here. Don Weis’ movie about Krupa, as portrayed by Sal Mineo, at least hints at some of the pitfalls of a life in music, but it’s mostly a thumbs-down, both from a musical and cinematic vantage point. Not until “Bird”, Clint Eastwood’s biopic about Charlie Parker, did Hollywood attempt a story about an important, real-life jazz figure. An earnest effort, but glaring issues with the soundtrack, the cast and the script keep this from being much of a cinematic or musical achievement. Eastwood’s love of jazz makes this an ambitious effort, but one that ultimately fails. We love that anyone even tried to make this movie. We simply wish it had been executed better, given the gravity of its subject.

If Hollywood kept getting movies about real jazz musicians wrong, it did occasionally get closer with movies about jazz or jazz culture. “Man with a Golden Arm”, in which Frank Sinatra portrays a jazz drummer trying to kick a heroin habit, is fairly edgy even now, and was quite powerful when it was released in 1955. Check out Shorty Rogers leading the band at an audition which Sinatra’s character attends. A few years later, “Paris Blues” attempted to re-create some of that angst, but Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier ultimately can’t save a fairly unfocused project.

This sort of stylized view of jazz culture is resurrected, almost laughably, in Spike Lee’s “Mo Better Blues”, wherein Denzel Washington portrays a jazz musician who seems at least as concerned about expensive fashion and fine champagne as he is about music. Not that jazz musicians haven’t historically coveted those things, but in Lee’s vision, even the cats at the local jazz joint can afford this kind of swanky lifestyle. A truly silly film for a lot of reasons, and not saved in the least by Terence Blanchard’s soundtrack.

Buddhist Blues

An American Gigolo plays the blues

Another dud, if a more ambitious one, is Francis Ford Coppola’s “Cotton Club”. The period music is pretty good, and re-created with at least a rough semblance to what Duke Ellington’s band might have been playing in that actual venue circa 1930, but the movie is mostly formulaic, and doesn’t have enough connection to the real Cotton Club or its history to be effective. The best scene is a typical Coppola juxtaposition of a gangster hit with a brilliant bit of tap dancing by Gregory Hines. Mostly, ‘though, we’re stuck watching Richard Gere mugging with cornet as a sort of prettied-up Biederbecke character, but one who meets a less ugly end. If nothing else, we learned that Herman Munster was co-owner of the Cotton Club. Who knew?

A few years later, Robert Altman made jazz a prominent part of a complex story in a much better film, “Kansas City”. Underrated by critics and ignored by the public, it takes some real chances with the soundtrack. A fictional tale set in mid-1930’s Kansas City, Altman wisely uses the music of that city and that era as an integral part of the story. Instead of simply having good players record a soundtrack in a studio, Altman’s sound crew used fairly cutting-edge recording techniques to capture the musicians live on the sets where the story takes place. He hired dozens of the best players available, from Joshua Redman and James Carter to David Murray and Ron Carter, dressed them in period costume, and let them loose to improvise the music, their characters and much of their dialogue. There’s one particularly great moment where a sax battle erupts during a jam session, with Redman’s Lester Young-esque character versus Carter’s Ben Webster-ish one. The playing is marvelous, and it fits into the story beautifully. One of the better films about jazz culture ever made, even if its focus is elsewhere, and it’s perhaps topped only by the following example.

“Round Midnight” from 1986, stars real-life jazz great Dexter Gordon in a fictional role as an American expatriate musician working in Paris, one who’s a sort of cross between Bud Powell and Lester Young. Contrasting this to Martin Ritt’s “Paris Blues” is instructive, to say the least. Gordon, who had some acting experience, is brilliant, and was nominated for an Oscar. The supporting players are, as in Altman’s “Kansas City”, a who’s-who of working jazz players of that era. Director Bertrand Tavernier simply gets it right, from the characters to the music to the nuanced interaction between dilettante French jazz fans and the musicians. Not only a great jazz movie, “Round Midnight” is a great movie, period. We saw once where a movie critic with some knowledge of jazz had complained that this story was too close to the true one of Bud Powell to be fairly labeled as “fiction”. We’d say that’s high praise, not to mention a good example of a filmmaker using courtesy and restraint.

Jazz, fortunately, has had better outcomes as soundtrack music for films that had nothing to do with jazz. Duke Ellington’s score for Otto Preminger’s great “Anatomy of a Murder” comes to mind, as does Miles Davis’ innovative work on Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows”. Happily, there are many other good examples of jazz as soundtrack, and perhaps that’s one milieu where the music can survive and even resurrect itself as an evolving form.

Perhaps it’s not fair to single out jazz as having been poorly portrayed on film. Rock and roll has had its troubles in that regard, too. Not counting all of those low-budget Alan Freed revues from the music’s early years, or Elvis’ many walk-throughs, rock and roll biopics and movies about the culture haven’t typically been very good. Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” relies on your love for, tolerance of, or disdain for, his quirky directorial style. Janis Joplin wasn’t illuminated in a real way in that sort-of-biopic “The Rose” and only documentaries have been remotely successful at portraying other rock legends. The best films about rock and roll seem to be those with a sense of humor, like “High Fidelity” and especially Rob Reiner’s “This is Spinal Tap”. We knew the latter film had gotten it right when most of our buddies working in metal bands took great offense, calling the idea of amplifiers having an “eleven” volume setting “stupid” and “not funny at all”.

The fabulous Schmenge Brothers.

The fabulous Schmenge Brothers.

TV’s history with rock and roll is mostly dismal, with shows like The Monkees and The Partridge Family hardly capturing anything real about either the music or its associated lifestyles. Jazz, at least, can take solace in at least one great TV character. No, we’re not talking about Jack Webb’s Sgt. Friday. We speak, of course, of the great Bleeding Gums Murphy, Lisa Simpson’s sax-playing hero from The Simpsons. Lisa’s not a bad baritone player, either.

Finally, an honorable mention for best use of polka in a TV show has to go to the recurring characters The Schmenge Brothers on the old SCTV show. We’re not sure if “Cabbage Rolls and Coffee” is on any list of must-know standards, and it’s strangely absent from our copy of The Real Book, but we think it’s one of the great Leutonian songs of all time. Here’s a link to the boys (in character) when they appeared on David Letterman’s Late Night show back in the ’80’s. As portrayed by John Candy and Eugene Levy, Yosh and Stan absolutely killed us. Dead, like jazz.

As usual, you can buy related stuff from Amazon by clicking on the links below. Today, we’re pitching movies, so if any of them sound like must-sees (or look like must-hears?), grab a copy. Just click on the pic, man.


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