Due to the halt in Steppin' into the Screen (Steppin' into Tomorrow’s monthly documentary showings at the Melkweg) and this awesome summer heat, I suppose a lot of you haven’t been hiding away in a cinema for the past few months. (Or like me you still have your weekly dose of being a hermit to society.) Either way, it will soon be time to swap your sunglasses for viewing glasses as Steppin’ into the Screen will return this September. And in preparation, I have compiled a list of, in my opinion, the best Jazz films/ documentaries for you to delve into this August.
Documentary of event: 'Summer Of Soul' by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
The Roots drummer and music encyclopedia Questlove had a go at directing - and won an academy award for it. ‘Summer of Soul’ depicts the eclipsed Harlem Cultural Festival. Using a colossal amount of archival footage showcasing performances from Nina Simone, early Stevie Wonder, and Sly and the Family Stone (to name a few) and including interviews from festival organizers, attendees, and performers, the film exhibits the ridiculousness of its concealment. This documentary goes above and beyond the idea of retelling history, as it tells a story that has never been told. A must-see for lovers of music history.
Documentary of person: 'Let’s Get Lost' by Bruce Weber
Look up on Wikipedia ‘Bruce Weber’ and you get ‘an American fashion photographer and occasional filmmaker’. Well, on one of his ‘occasions’ of film making, he decided to create the biographical masterpiece, of one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time ‘Let’s Get Lost’.
The film is a brutally honest portrayal of Chet Baker’s life. Using Baker's own home recordings and contrasting them with Weber’s shots, we witness the unceremonious demise drugs had on his life. Despite this, the film is indomitable in the way it showcases the constant presence of Baker's musical talent, it shows how jazz is engrained within the man, giving the sense that music is not a choice for him, it is simply part of him.
Directorial performance: 'Bird' by Clint Eastwood
Depicting the life of Charlie ‘bird’ Parker, Bird is an incredibly vulnerable film. Directed by Clint Eastwood the film is shot like a series of memories and episodes of Parker's life that are trying to fit together to make sense of his world.
With the camera panning from actor to actor during conversations about love, long shots over a scenery, and intermissions of jazz performances that fall so organically into the storyline, through Eastwood's choices the film allows the viewer to be submerged completely in the New York Jazz scene and lose themselves, hand in hand with the protagonist.
Netflix pick: 'What Happened, Miss Simone?' by Liz Garbus
Nina Simone, a well-loved and revolutionary icon of jazz, many people see her as a muse for the political impact of music, especially when it comes to issues of race. Through this documentary, we really get to see Simone as a person. Showing the demise of her mental health in a very raw unapologetic way, it allows the audience to feel the sad difficulties and frustrations she felt during her time as an icon. With unheard recordings, unseen footage, and untold stories, this documentary is an extremely humble insight into her life.
Score: 'Ascenseur pour l'Échafaud' by Louis Malle (Score: Miles Davis)
A typical French Neo-noir film directed by Louis Malle ‘Ascenseur pour l'Échafaud’ is an immensely tense and gripping film. Based on the novel by Noel Calef, the film is a crime story about a woman who gets her lover to murder her husband. The film is not in this list because of its storyline but rather, the score. Written by Miles Davis, the music’s contribution to this film is astronomical, so much so that I would credit Davis as a supporting actor.
Music in films nowadays is an essential part of playing with the viewers' emotions, and it is evident the influence this film has had on the Nouvelle Vague film scene.
Short: 'Momma Don’t Allow' by Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz.
Enjoy people watching? Well instead of sitting in a vegan café looking at 30-year-old businessmen or yummy mummies on their way to yoga, imagine being taken back to the London Jazz Club ‘Wood Green’ in 1956. Shot in a very observatory style, in these 20 minutes we are taken through the progression of the night. Starting with the band warming up, staff cleaning, until we are taken into a room full of people dancing and enjoying themselves.
With storylines emulating from people’s facial expressions, the camera shoots in a way where we are allowed to develop a fleeting relationship with the bodies present, close-ups of couples bickering, and following girls through the crowd. We make up the main characters ourselves, as if we are actually there. A wonderful viewing and easy experience.
We hope you enjoy these films this month and we'll be back with the first in-person screening on Wednesday, Sept 14th at the Melkweg, Amsterdam with none other than the incredible 'D'Angelo - Devil's Pie' documentary!
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