Les Blank, a fascinating individual and director of some remarkably personal documentaries passed away yesterday. I hardly have anything to say about him, at least worthy of his long and adventurous career, since I knew his ouvre only sporadically. However, I hope the stream of obituaries following his death would serve the purpose of shedding light on the career of the man "whose sly, sensuous and lyrical documentaries about regional music and a host of other idiosyncratic subjects, including Mardi Gras, gaptoothed women, garlic and the filmmaker Werner Herzog, were widely admired by critics and other filmmakers if not widely known by moviegoers."
Here, I'll draw your attention to one of Blank's very early films, which happens to be one of the best jazz films produced under the umbrella of independent, ciné-vérité movement of the 1960s. Les Blank made many films about music, including The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (1968), of course if one doesn't mention incorporating jazz and blues music in his non-musical films. During five tireless decades of film-making, the portrait of Dizzy Gillespie stands out as probably one of Blank's most accomplished cinematographic discovery of music and musical ideas.
One can argue that Blank's ambition was to achieve the fluency and that individuality of expression in Gillespie's music. That natural "hipness", and the entertaining unpredictability of performance or the exuberance control of the means of expression in Dizzy Gillespie's music can fascinate anyone concerned with the matter of form. For instance, Blank uses focusing (in and out of focus shots), as a way to show the inception of the musical idea for a jazz improviser like Gillespie and even turned this technique into a metaphor for thinking - thinking music which is translated to pure imagery on screen. Blank appropriately shows how that vague, blurred and unsure beginning reaches a perfect form, flourishes and explodes ("he never starts," said Whitney Balliett of Gillespie, "he erupts.")
Furthermore, there are some unexpected moments in film, like that of Dizz's music, which now has found a certain historical value, like the sequence of Dizzy appears as a guest soloist in Stan Kenton's Neophonic Orchestra in which Les Blank candidly captures a Dizzy who looks doubtful of Kenton's cold, brassy arrangements and acrobatics. After the concert with Kenton, which probably due to copyright concerns is skipped in the film, George Shearing and Conte Condoli join the party.
Like Dizzy Gillespie's music, Dizzy Gillespie the film deliberately averts consistency or a narrative effect. Instead, leaning on a staccato editing (amazingly demonstrated during the opening/credit sequence) and the bold use of zoom lenses, Les Blank is aiming to recreate the Bebop language for the movie camera.
Watch the film here: