Saxophonist Dexter Gordon stars in Bertrand Tavernier's "'Round Midnight," the greatest jazz feature film ever made.(Little Bear)
With clubs and concert halls shut down, our musical needs must be satisfied at home.
And surely one of the best ways is by watching movies devoted to the subject.
With that in mind, here’s one listener’s guide to some of the best and worst movies on jazz:
“’Round Midnight” (1986)
Sometimes it takes an outsider to illuminate what’s happening inside another culture. Certainly that’s the case with “’Round Midnight,” the best feature film ever made about a distinctly American art form. Directed and co-written by the French master Bertrand Tavernier, “’Round Midnight” captures the melancholy of a jazz musician’s life, as well as the joys of making music on the bandstand. Part of the film’s genius lies in its casting, with jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordonplaying the tortured protagonist (loosely modeled on pianist Bud Powell), who battles addiction and other woes. Herbie Hancock won an Oscar for his original score in a film that makes the music a character in itself.
“Young Man with a Horn” (1950)
Kirk Douglas, who died in February at age 103, turned in one of the most convincing and compelling characterizations of a jazz musician ever filmed. You can feel his character’s obsession with the music, and you can witness its terrible cost. He’s surrounded by a comparably effective cast, with Doris Day as the embodiment of hope, Lauren Bacall as the face of cynicism and immortal songwriter-pianist Hoagy Carmichael as the sage who narrates it all. Harry James recorded the trumpet solos that Douglas mimes so beautifully, James’ famously golden sound easy to get lost in. The ending of director Michael Curtiz’s film is not perfect, but just about everything else in it is. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime)
Can an animated film do justice to the elusive art of jazz? The Oscar-nominated “Chico & Rita” definitively answered that question. Very loosely based on the story of Cuban musician Bebo Valdes, the film shows American jazz and its Cuban counterpart intermingling to brilliant effect. Beyond the vivid animation – which re-creates the likenesses of Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, Tito Puente, Chano Pozo and others – the music is the star, thanks partly to the contributions of Jimmy Heath, Arturo O’Farrill, and Valdes, who played piano tellingly. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime)
“Jazz on a Summer’s Day” (1959)
The music never looked more beautiful nor sensuous than in Bert Stern’s classic documentary, which chronicles the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in ultrapoetic tones. Of course, any film that features live performances by Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day, Thelonious Monk and others already has a great deal going for it. Stern interweaves the concert footage with lush cinematography of the environs, in effect shattering the unfortunate but widely disseminated myth of jazz as an inherently dark and forbidding world.
“Keep on Keepin’ On” (2014)
The jazz world has known few figures more gifted or generous than trumpeter Clark Terry, whose final chapter is lovingly captured here. We see Terry mentoring the young pianist Justin Kauflin, just as Terry had encouraged and influenced future stars such as Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. When Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra come to play for an ailing Terry, we see – and hear – how jazz musicians connect and how legacies pass through generations. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime)
Writer-director Damien Chazelle made quite a splash with this feature film, which was so histrionic and exaggerated as to demean both its central characters and the art of jazz itself. For those who believed such hysterical melodrama, please realize this soap opera has nothing to do with how jazz is played or lived. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime)
You’d think a lifelong jazz lover and advocate such as director Clint Eastwood would have a better understanding of Charlie Parker than he displayed in this starchy biopic. You would be wrong. To Eastwood, Bird was a swooning, drugged-out clown, which made this film a disgrace to Parker’s music, his disease and his legacy. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime)
It takes real talent to suck the life out of an art form as animated as jazz, but documentary filmmaker Ken Burns managed to do it – and in only 19 hours! Errors, exaggerations and omissions abound in this 10-episode extravaganza of talking heads and precious little music-making. In all, an ideal expression of what jazz is not. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime)
Director-star Don Cheadle somehow turns Miles Davis, one of the most charismatic figures in jazz history, into a small, petty, ridiculous man. The laughable plot line concerns Davis and a fictional journalist hotly pursuing a stolen tape of the trumpeter’s music, complete with car chase and gunfire. Really. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime)
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
Howard Reich is the Tribune's Emmy-winning arts critic; author of six books, including "The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel"; and writer-producer of three documentaries. He holds two honorary doctoral degrees and served on the Pulitzer music jury four times, including for the first jazz winner, "Blood on the Fields."
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