Kind of Blue: Jazz Cinema’s Mixed Bag

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.

Let’s Get Lost (1998)
Fashion photographer Bruce Weber revealed unexpected depth in this, his second documentary, perhaps because of his genuine and infectious love for the subject. Using archival footage and interviews with then-alive, if artistically dormant, Chet Baker (his questions are refreshingly, almost childishly frank), Weber depicts the jazz trumpeter in such black-and-white glory that this is now widely recognized as a highlight in doc filmmaking as well as music biopics, that often-botched film genre.

Bird (1988)
Clint Eastwood’s films can be rather soulless but his biopic about Charlie Parker is anything but, perhaps because the director is a long-time jazz enthusiast. (Along those lines, also check out his doc “Piano Blues.”) Taking its aesthetic cues from its subject, “Bird” is all mood-indigo impressionism and neon-forward melancholia, with a strong narrative spine that has everything to do with the outsized genius of Forest Whitaker as the legendary jazz saxophonist and composer.

Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
A true Spike Lee joint, this portrait of fictional trumpeter Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington, at the apex of his matinee idol good looks) costars and is written, directed, and produced by Brooklyn’s unofficial mayor, with compositions by his father, jazz musician Bill Lee. Like many Spike endeavors, it undeniably drops the ball(s) on the “women question.” But with swooping camerawork (another Lee staple), bold visual design and a hauntingly strong score, it’s still an amazing technicolored dreamcoat of be-bop beauty.

Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1980)
Not everyone knows Sun Ra but everyone should–especially every music lover. Director Robert Mugge does his damnedest to spread the world in this documentary about the psychedelic composer, pianist, bandleader, poet and cosmic philosopher. Short on interviews (and, some would say, insights), it features instead the artist formerly known as Harold Blount doing what he does best—performing with his avant-garde “Arkestra” at various locations. At sixty minutes, it’s a short and sweet ride in his space ship of 1970s free-form jazz.

My Name Is Albert Ayler (2008)
This documentary also pays homage to an underrated, out-there musician but that’s where any similarity to “A Joyful Noise” ends. With lickety-split flashes of photographs, newsreels, home movies and isolated snatches of speech, it follows the short life of Ayler, the notoriously divisive saxophonist who won Coltrane’s admiration in 1963 only to be found floating in New York City’s East River in 1970. To his immense credit, Swedish director Kasper Collins has managed to make a movie that looks and feels what jazz sounds like.

This was originally published in Word and Film.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy