Saturday, September 20, 2014

Best Docs Ever: The Jazz Picks

The Sound of Jazz
The leading English film journal Sight & Sound, known for its historical polls and decennial best-of lists selected by critics and filmmakers, recently conducted a new, slightly different poll: best documentaries of all time. The editor Nick James has explained the genesis of this poll here. The final result, searchable based on those who have voted and the films that have been voted for, can be accessed on this interactive page, but in case you're just curious about the final ten, these the are the films which have made it to the top:

1. Man with a Movie Camera
2. Shoah
3. Sans soleil
4. Night and Fog
5. The Thin Blue Line
6. Chronicle of a Summer
7. Nanook of the North
8. The Gleaners and I
=9. Dont Look Back
=9. Grey Gardens

I was one of the three hundred and something critics/filmmakers who participated in the poll. My top 10 and notes on my selection can be read here, but again, to make things easier for readers of this blog, these are the films which I saw, at that particular point, as the best documentaries ever made:

1 The Sound of Jazz (Jack Smight, 1957)
2 Quince Tree of the Sun (Victor Erice, 1992)
3 Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
4 Histoire(s) du cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988)
5 The House Is Black (Forugh Farrokhzad, 1962)
6 Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (Marcel Ophüls, 1988)
7 Robinson in Space (Patrick Keiller, 1997)
8 Lektionen in Finsternis (Werner Herzog, 1992)
9 P for Pelican (Parviz Kimiavi, 1972)
10 The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1976)

As you can see my first pick is a jazz film, made in 1957 for CBS as a live TV programme. (For further information on the film see the end of this post.) That made me curious to examine how many jazz docs have made it to the long list of the selected films. Among Top Ten, there are of course music documentaries such as Dont Look Back, but as far as jazz in concerned, these are the only jazz documentaries on the Sight & Sound poll, occasionally accompanied by short notes from voters:

Jammin' The Blues (1944)
Directed by: Gjon Mili

Jam session in which a group of musicians perform 'The midnight symphony', 'On the sunny side of the street' and 'Jammin' the blues', supported by dancer Archie Savage. Kent Jones, director of the New York Film Festival, has voted for this short gem. Jones writes: "Lester Young, Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones and other great musicians in velvet light and darkness and a series of ingenious compositions, including the multiple-image style for which Mili was known as a still photographer. Shot and lit by future Hitchcock DP Robert Burks – his very first credit."

Watch it here:

Jazz Dance (1954)
Directed by: Roger Tilton

Film of a jazz session at the Central Plaza Dance Hall, New York City. Tue Steen Müller and Keith Griffths have voted for this film.

Watch the film here:

Ornette: Made in America, A Musical Jazz Journey (1985)
Directed by: Shirley Clarke

Documentary on the jazz saxophonist, Ornette Coleman. Ashley Clark, who has voted for the film, calls it a "playful documentary... a kaleidoscopic meeting of two untameable, unorthodox talents."

See the trailer:

Let's Get Lost (1988)
Directed by: Bruce Weber

Documentary about the life and music of Chet Baker. Features interviews with his wives, girlfriends, other relatives and friends. Baker is shown hanging around in bars, on beaches and at home, as he reflects, in his final year, on his life of drug addiction and massive success in his career. Includes music performance and clips of his few film roles. Filmed in grainy high contrast black-and-white.

The critic Jason Wood who has voted for the film writes: "Both celebratory and heartbreaking, Weber's portrait of chisel-cheeked jazz trumpeter Chet Baker is a paean to lost opportunity, second chances and squandered talent. Baker is beautiful but a bastard. A failed father and husband, the temptation is to forgive him because of his remarkable voice and god-given talent. Strikingly shot in black and white. The soundtrack is magnificent."

A Great Day in Harlem (1994)
Directed by: Jean Bach

Story of the day in 1958 on which a group photograph of famous jazz players was taken in Harlem. Based on home-movie footage. Asif Kapadia, a British filmmaker, had voted for this film which, according to him, is "created from a single image and a rostrum camera."

See this Oscar winner documentary, in its entirety, here:

And finally my pick:

The Sound of Jazz (1957)
Directed by: Jack Smight

Now, my turn. I voted for this masterpiece of live TV, arguing that "this is the greatest improvised documentary ever." The film features a super-stellar line-up of 32 leading jazz musicians gathered at the CBS Studio in New York City in December 8, 1957. It was made in one hour and broadcast live on television. Cameramen were as into ad-libing as Thelonious Monk, and when Billie Holiday and Lester Young started to play Fine and Mellow everybody in the control room was crying.

Complete broadcast here:

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