From Baker to Monk: Jazzing up the big screen

A very subjective list of 10 great movies made greater with the exuberance of jazz. And no, Whiplash doesn't make the cut

Jazz, with its moody complexities, has always lent itself to the movies. Every once in a while, a great movie is made greater with jazz. The latest in a long list is the so-called non-biopic of Chet Baker, Born to be Blue, which made waves at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, once again reviving interest in this niche genre.

Playing a fictional Baker acting in a fictional biopic about himself, Ethan Hawke has by all accounts given the performance of his life. Shadowing the early musical life of the trumpeter, reviews say Born to be Blue is a fine introduction to the man once named the king of West Coast cool.

The release of a movie like this almost inevitably spawns lists of ones that have come before. This is one of them and, due to the very subjectivity of taste and opinion, will probably not count as the definitive list of the best jazz movies ever. In fact, no list will. Instead, this list features films (in no particular order) that have entertained many with their riveting stories and scintillating jazz.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Noir and jazz have on many occasions created cinematic catharsis. A perfect example of this is Elevator to the Gallows, the feature debut of French director Louis Malle. A brilliant thriller of mistaken identity and murder, the movie is soaked in the superb score of Miles Davis, the great trumpet player, bandleader and composer. Considered an important milestone in film noir, Elevator to the Gallows is an extraordinary amalgam of moving images, particularly of Jeanne Moreau—Malle’s muse—and music. The melancholic trumpet of Davis in many ways defines the mood of the entire movie with its bluesy keening. If it is possible to love music that breaks your heart with every note, this is it.

Chico & Rita (2010)

For people who simply cannot resist romance and achingly beautiful music, there’s nothing better than Chico & Rita, the story of a struggling pianist and a successful singer who travel through Havana, New York and Paris in the late 1940s. Directed by Fernando Trueba, the animated musical has an original soundtrack by Cuba’s legendary pianist Bebo Valdés.

Trueba had earlier made Calle 54 (2000), one of the finest documentaries on Latin jazz, again with Valdés. Chico & Rita reinvents music by Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Cole Porter. Released to widespread critical acclaim, its infectious score underlines the passion between the player and the diva amid dazzling visuals. It is impossible not to get drawn completely into the story of love and heartbreak that the music only serves to sharply accentuate.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

The addictive mix of sex and crime, or the gripping portrayal of it, also pays off handsomely in musical terms. Anatomy of a Murder, perhaps the greatest courtroom melodrama ever made, stands testimony to this. One of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to graphically depict sex and use explicit language, this black-and-white movie directed by Otto Preminger is full of musical colour thanks to the background score composed by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington and played by Ellington’s orchestra.

Although heard in bits and pieces, the music is among the best of Ellington, winning three Grammy Awards. The title music sets a high benchmark to foreshadow simmering violence, as does the seductive allure of the hip-swaying Flirtibird, which has become the signature tune of the femme fatale. Interestingly, Ellington plays a brief role as Pie Eye, a roadhouse owner.

The Terminal (2004)

On a fine summer day in Harlem in 1958, Art Kane shot a group portrait of 57 musicians for Esquire magazine that has since become the most famous photograph in jazz history. In his inimitable way, Steven Spielberg directed a unique movie called The Terminal, which blends the Harlem photograph with the story of a man trapped in New York’s JFK airport terminal.

Played by Tom Hanks, the story hinges on the man who comes to New York to get the one last autograph of the 57 musicians that his father failed to collect before he died. Composed by John Williams, a frequent collaborator of Spielberg, the music maintains the light, comic mood of the movie and doffs its hat to the jazz musicians who are its invisible core. The big payoff comes when Hanks watches a performance by saxophonist Benny Golson and finally gets his last autograph.

Kansas City (1996)

A gem of a gangster movie, Kansas City is one of the lesser-known works of Robert Altman (MASH, The Long Goodbye, Gosford Park) and is particularly notable for its terrific jazz score and the portrayal by many jazz celebrities playing roles of past masters in a pub called the Hey Hey Club. Owned by a gangster called Seldom Seen (played to perfection by Harry Belafonte), the Hey Hey Club is shown as one of the hot spots in Kansas City’s jazz scene in 1934, where performers joust with each other, spawning a new musical language.

The period piece of blackmail and multiple kidnappings has pianist Geri Allen playing Mary Lou Williams, saxophonist Joshua Redman playing Lester Young, Craig Handy playing the role of Coleman Hawkins, James Carter playing Ben Webster and features many other current-day heroes such as Cyrus Chestnut, Christian McBride and Ron Carter. The music is consistently brilliant.

Naked Lunch (1991)

The film adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg (The Fly, Crash) is known for its surreal weirdness. What is less well known is its background score by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings, The Aviator, Hugo) and great saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The movie is worth seeing just for the free improvisation by Coleman complementing all the weirdness that happens in the movie, particularly Midnight Sunrise from his album Dancing on Your Head.

Jazz is uniquely suited to melancholic tunes, which are in this film transformed into a kind of schizophrenic hyperkinesia. The use of Midnight Sunrise is also quite appropriate as Burroughs was present during its 1973 recording session. Trivia: Rock band Steely Dan, heavily influenced by jazz, got its name from a dildo in the book.

Round Midnight (1986)

Black jazz musicians have always had a special relationship with Paris and Europe, where they could escape the shameful discrimination that characterized the US in the middle of the last century. An American-French musical drama directed by Bertrand Tavernier, Round Midnight stars saxophonist Dexter Gordon and pianist Herbie Hancock (who also composed the background score).

A tragic and wistful depiction of the Paris jazz scene in the 1950s, the movie is a partly romanticized but gritty tale of music, addiction and friendship that earned Gordon an Oscar nomination for best actor and a Grammy Award for best instrumental jazz performance.

Tavernier drew directly from the Dance of the Infidels, a memoir by French author Francis Paudras, who became friends with pianist Bud Powell during his expat days in Paris. Round Midnight is a must-see for its bittersweet portrayal of a jazz musician and the terrific performance by Gordon, who incidentally lived in Paris for many years.

Bird (1988)

For countless aficionados, Charlie Parker epitomizes the soul of jazz. It seems natural that Clint Eastwood, a long-time jazz fan, produced and directed the biopic called Bird, picking the famous nickname of the most celebrated man of jazz. The movie is a moving montage of Parker’s life that charts his childhood in Kansas, his only stable relationships with wife Chan Parker and fellow saxophonist Dizzy Gillespie, his struggle with heroin addition, his untimely death at 34, and, of course, the glorious music he brought into being. Forest Whitaker played the role of Parker so well that it earned him the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988)

Not all of the best jazz movies are feature films. Among the documentaries, the one that really stands out is Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, which is directed by Charlotte Zwerin. It features live performances by Monk and his group and posthumous interviews with family and friends that was made possible when archived footage of Monk was found in the 1980s.

One admirer likened them to the Dead Sea Scrolls of jazz. What can you possibly say about a film that shows in the best light the man who reinvented the way a piano could be played? It’s much better to sit back and savour Mon’s elliptical music-making that still defines the sound of jazz.

Let’s Get Lost (1988)

There are several other documentaries that open windows to the wondrous world of jazz. This list was inspired by Born to be Blue that’s based on Chet Baker. It then seems appropriate that it ends with Let’s Get Lost, a documentary directed by Bruce Weber on made on the life of Baker, his music and his struggle with drug addiction. Tragically, shortly before it was completed, the trumpeter fell to his death from a hotel window. Interspaced with live performances and interviews, it’s a wonderful tribute to the man.

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