Chicagoans have the opportunity to see a larger-than-average number of jazz-related films this month. Currently playing in weeklong runs are Francis Ford Coppola’s new director’s cut of The Cotton Club (at the Landmark Century) and the new documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (at the Gene Siskel Film Center), and a week from tonight the Chicago Film Society will screen Robert Altman’s 1997 documentary Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing at the Music Box Theatre as part of its ongoing collaboration with the Jazz Institute of Chicago. This partnership has already yielded some wonderful programs this year, including 35-millimeter revivals of Arthur Penn’s 1961 oddity Mickey One, Shirley Clarke’s experimental documentary Ornette: Made in America (1985), and Spike Lee’s perennially underrated Mo’ Better Blues (1990). Next month the two organizations will present another exciting revival, a 16-millimeter screening of Terry Zwigoff’s Louie Bluie (1985) at Pilsen’s Filmfront.
All these films reflect the fruitful hybridization of cinema and jazz, two highly collaborative art forms that often play on improvisation and the music of chance. In some films these qualities are made explicit. Thomas Reichman’s 1968 documentary Mingus is one example that comes to mind, a harrowing account of America’s greatest composer in perhaps the worst period of his life. That movie finds Charles Mingus riffing on various subjects in his Harlem loft the night before he gets evicted; his impromptu monologue constitutes a bravura performance that rivals any of the music Reichman includes in the film. In other movies the influence of jazz is woven more subtly into the overall structure—John Cassavetes’s Shadows (which Mingus scored) and Altman’s California Split are particularly masterful examples of these.
Clint Eastwood once said, somewhat reductively, that the only art forms truly indigenous to the United States are jazz and the western. I’ve yet to see a jazz-influenced western, though Robert Downey Sr.’s Greasers Palace may come close. Moreover, Eastwood’s own Charlie Parker biopic Bird (one of the best movies I know about an artist) draws, in its filmmaking, on lessons the director learned from his considerable period of working in the western genre. I’ve included Bird in the five capsule reviews from the Reader archives that mark worthy syntheses of movies and jazz; the other four are worth your time as well.
The Jazz Singer You can see what an impact sound must have had in 1927, because it certainly wasn’t the movie that made this production a phenomenon. Al Jolson stars, broadly, as the cantor’s son torn between Jewish tradition and blackface ballading. It’s ragged and dull until the magical moment when Jolson turns to the camera to announce, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet”—a line so loaded with unconscious irony that it still raises a few goose bumps. The direction is the work of Alan Crosland, who made Don Juan, Warners’ first Vitaphone hit (recorded music, but no dialogue), into a far superior film in 1926. —Dave Kehr
The Cry of Jazz Edward O. Bland’s fascinating and quirky 35-minute essay, made in Chicago in 1959, argues that the long-suffering Blacks who produced jazz offer essential expressions of the African American spirit. In one bitter and hilarious moment, “white jazz”—sounding a lot like elevator music—accompanies images of a suburban train station and someone grooming a dog, contrasting the film’s taut urban imagery with suburban blandness. A rough-edged but provocative melange, this improbably mixes great footage of Sun Ra, sections that have the feel of cheesy 50s instructional films, and staged scenes in which Black and white actors woodenly portray members of a “jazz club” who meet in someone’s apartment. —Fred Camper
Round Midnight Bertrand Tavernier’s perennially heavy mood seems especially well suited to this indigo-shaded story (1986) of a Black American sax man (Dexter Gordon) living and performing in Paris in the late 50s, though the point here is the music (enlarging on Tavernier’s well-known affection for American blues-jazz idioms): the not-quite-satisfactory relationship Tavernier concocts between Gordon’s alcoholic musician and a chirrupy young Frenchman who becomes his self-appointed protector seems little more than a dramatic excuse for the performances that flow around it. Gordon’s remarkable as the emotionally disarranged, psychologically disintegrating jazzman, and when the little Frenchman calls him a genius, you suddenly realize what that overused term implies: not moral worthiness or superior personhood but a giftedness beyond accounting that hardly belongs to character at all. With François Cluzet, Gabrielle Haker, Lonette McKee, and a slew of topflight jazz performers (Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard). —Pat Graham
Bird Clint Eastwood’s ambitious 1988 feature about the great Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker) is the most serious, conscientious, and accomplished jazz biopic ever made, and almost certainly Eastwood’s best picture as well. Joel Oliansky’s script accounts for much of the movie’s distinction. Alto player Lennie Niehaus’s score electronically isolates Parker’s solos from his original recordings and substitutes contemporary sidemen (including Monty Alexander, Ray Brown, Walter Davis Jr., Jon Faddis, and John Guerin), with pretty good results. The film is less sensitive than it might have been to Parker’s status as an avant-garde innovator and his brushes with racism, and only occasionally are we allowed to hear his electrifying solos without interruption or interference, but in most other respects Eastwood’s grasp of the jazz world and Parker’s life is exemplary. The extreme darkness of the film, visual as well as conceptual, is haunting. With Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker, and Samuel E. Wright as Dizzy Gillespie. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Nina Simone, Love Sorceress Rene Letzgus’s 1998 French documentary of a 1976 concert by the late singer is hampered by a few distractions, but the event being documented is so riveting and so eccentric in its own right that it hardly matters. This isn’t so much a concert as a work of performance art (one of the best I’ve seen since Richard Pryor—Live in Concert) in which Simone’s divalike behavior is as much a part of the show as her Juilliard-trained piano playing and her stupendous untrained voice. Whether she’s performing “Little Girl Blue” and a Langston Hughes tribute, alternately barking at or complimenting the audience (or getting it to sing with—or instead of—her), making cryptic comments to herself about show business or life in general, or dancing in high heels to African drums, she’s such a commanding and powerful presence that I was mesmerized for most of the film’s 75 minutes. —Jonathan Rosenbaum v