Great films about jazz are unhappily rare, perhaps because exactly what makes the musical genre wonderful–its complexity, its lack of pandering, its gorgeous esoterica–are qualities that are anathema to Hollywood. In the absence of a great Duke Ellington or John Coltrane biopic, here are some selections that, in one way or another, do offer a love supreme.
A Great Day in Harlem (1994)
Jean Bach’s documentary about the story behind the legendary photograph of the same name is a study in “the little engine that could” artistry. A pastiche of home movies and interviews with everyone from Art Blakely to Sonny Rollins to Dizzy Gillespie, it recalls the Esquire magazine shoot in which many of jazz music’s greats rather improbably gathered in front of a Harlem brownstone on a 1958 Sunday morning. With a running time of 60 minutes, it delivers just enough nostalgia, though some might prefer a greater emphasis on the featured artists rather than the merits of the image itself.
Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross stars as Billie Holiday in this conventional yet affecting biopic about jazz’s most tragic female star. Focusing on Lady Day’s heroin habit as well as the backstory of her controversial “Strange Fruit,” this film spares no genre cliché. But as a vehicle for Ross, who channels Holiday’s sorrow with an uncharacteristic gravitas, it offers unparalleled pleasure. Plus: Richard Pryor in his first onscreen performance.