As part of my ongoing education in jazz – embarked upon several months ago when I started writing this radio feature – I’ve been working my way through the long list of movies about jazz and jazz musicians. After many hours on the couch with a bowl of popcorn balanced on my chest, I’ve come to a few conclusions about what I like in a movie about America’s original musical form. For the purposes of time, I’ll rule out documentaries and concert films – maybe we can address those some other day.
Although it’s worth noting that the first sound motion picture ever made was in fact The Jazz Singer, aside from the musical shorts Paramount Pictures made in the 1930s, there isn’t much of a respectable treatment of jazz until the 1947 film New Orleans appeared. Despite a forgettable story and simply awful acting by the main players, New Orleans is worth your trouble for the sake of watching Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Billie Holiday, and Woody Herman perform a number of times. As with many of the early jazz movies, the theme of this film is the journey of the jazz form from a scandalous reputation to a respectable one.
A surprisingly smart and slick film from 1955, The Benny Goodman Story, picks up on this theme. With Steve Allen in the role of the gifted clarinetist and bandleader, the movie tells the story of Goodman’s rise to fame to the point of the now famous concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938, when jazz was said to have been considered, finally, legitimate music. Subtly if effectively dealing with the issues of race, class, and ethnicity, The Benny Goodman Story also features appearances by Kid Ory, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and Harry James. And although Goodman himself never appears on the screen, his superb playing is featured throughout.
I went for a couple of decades before I found another film of note, that being Martin Scorcese’s 1997 movie New York, New York. Now it is a strange film, because Scorcese went out of his way to recreate the colorful, artificial sets and costumes of the musicals of the late 40s and 50s, but within that setting he has his actors – Robert DeNiro and Liza Minelli as pair of poorly-matched musicians – working in a highly realistic, improvisational style. The music is excellent throughout, and even though Liza Minelli might not be your cup of tea, New York, New York will reward a patient watcher in it’s ambition and cheer creativity.
Bebop received a fair treatment in two films of the 1980s. The first, 1986’s Round Midnight, is a dry, moody story based on the lives of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, and features a remarkable performance by the great Dexter Gordon. Strictly European in its style and pace, Round Midnight offers excellent playing throughout, with a soundtrack by Herbie Hancock, who appears in the film along with musicians John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Billy Higgins and Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Freddie Hubbard. Also worth noting from this decade is Clint Eastwood’s treatment of the life of Charlie Parker, Bird, released in 1988. A technically accomplished if emotionally distant film, Bird showcases an edgy, complex performance by Forest Whitaker as the jazz legend, and Eastwood gives us an early taste of the dark toned movies we’ve come to know in Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby.
This brings me, at last, to the latest and best of all the movies about music and musicians I have seen – 2004’s treatment of the life of Ray Charles, Taylor Hackford’s wonderful film Ray, which, as everyone knows, features a tremendous performance by Jamie Foxx in the title role. In its balancing of humor and pain, of entertainment and drama, and in its simple respect for the actual music of Ray Charles, you will hardly find a better movie – a real and proper movie – about a person whose story moved through that realm of music we call jazz.
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