Streaming: the best jazz films

A new Billie Holiday documentary prompts a look at the films that best capture the spirit of the jazz greats

The first thing anyone ever heard in the movies was jazz – in cinema’s first sound film, The Jazz Singer, of course, a creaky 1927 backstage drama that now only really has historical-milestone status to recommend it. (It’s on Amazon if you’re curious.) By now, happily, the cinema of jazz is a sophisticated, richly stocked subgenre, with British director James Erskine’s Billie (Barbican Cinema on demand) the latest addition.

The tumultuous life and death of Billie Holiday has long demanded a major documentary study, and Erskine’s film digs in with the advantage of a vast, hitherto unheard interview archive: candid testimonies from friends and associates such as Count Basie and Tony Bennett, recorded in the 1970s by the late journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, for a planned biography that never came to pass. They lend credible immediacy to a doc that otherwise takes a familiar approach to a tragic-fallen-star narrative, and works as a Holiday primer for uninformed viewers. The performance footage, unsurprisingly, is a joy – notwithstanding the questionable artistic decision to colourise a significant portion of it. Doesn’t that voice have enough shades of its own?

Watch a trailer for Billie.

Sadly, if you’re curious to compare it with the Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross, there’s no streaming solution. But several more recent jazz documentaries would make apt complementary viewing. On Netflix, you can see both Liz Garbus’s Oscar-nominated What Happened, Miss Simone?, which examines Nina Simone’s musical genius and political fire to rousing effect, and Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan, an exquisite, hugely overlooked elegy for the lesser-known life and career of trumpeter Lee Morgan. Marrying heartsore interview footage with deeply ambient evocations of 1960s New York by genius cinematographer Bradford Young, it deserves to be as much of a classic as, say, Bruce Weber’s starkly intimate Let’s Get Lost (on iTunes), a portrait of Chet Baker at the raddled tail-end of his life that has unsentimental empathy to match its curious photographer’s eye.

That, in turn, can cue a doc-versus-fiction comparison with Ethan Hawke’s deeply invested turn as Baker in Robert Budreau’s splintered, interpretive quasi-biopic Born to Be Blue (available on Google Play). The jagged rhythms of jazz, after all, invite more experimental approaches: Don Cheadle’s peculiar, clattering Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead (Netflix, again) certainly favours one, telling you less about Davis’s life than his general mystic aura. Meanwhile, with its tour-de-force Forest Whitaker performance, Clint Eastwood’s melancholic, musically crisp Charlie Parker biopic Bird (on Amazon) is one for the purists. And if it’s just facts and footage you’re after, the brisk, enjoyable documentary Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes (iTunes) – covering the legendary record label’s history from Coltrane through to Norah Jones – gets the job done nicely.

Forest Whitaker, left, as Charlie Parker in Bird, 1988.
Forest Whitaker, left, as Charlie Parker in Bird, 1988. Photograph: Allstar

But the spirit of jazz is often best found in films that shed any biographical concerns whatsoever. French director Bertrand Tavernier’s entrancing ’Round Midnight (on Chili) envelops real-life jazzman Dexter Gordon in smoky, invented, after-hours drama. Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues (on YouTube), underrated on its release, offers prime Denzel Washington and a twitchy air of rebellion in its free-fall character study of a trumpeter living wild. Finally, classic, loose-limbed jazz musicals such as Cabin in the Sky (YouTube again) need no plot or focus whatsoever: when talents like Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong take the stage, we jump and sway and dance with them.

Also new on streaming and DVD

Petr Kotlár in The Painted Bird.
Petr Kotlár in The Painted Bird. Photograph: AP

The Painted Bird
(Eureka, 18)
Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 Holocaust novel was controversially discredited as a memoir, but makes suitable material for Czech director Václav Marhoul’s vivid, visceral three-hour epic of waking horror. Following a child’s gruelling trek across an unspecified eastern European wasteland at the end of the second world war, it’s almost ostentatiously punishing, but marked throughout by ghoulish beauty.

What We Wanted
Austrian director Ulrike Kofler’s debut feature has been selected as his country’s official entry for the best international film Oscar, and you can see why. About a married couple beset with infertility struggles on what turns out to be a momentous summer holiday, it’s a polished, emotionally string-pulling melodrama that Hollywood, back when they still did glossy grown-up fare, would have remade in a flash.

Stage Mother
(Altitude, 15)
Way back in 1997, gay Canadian director Thom Fitzgerald made an artful, psychologically nuanced debut with the fragmented coming-out tale The Hanging Garden. He’s drifted somewhat from that standard in his perky, sitcom-style latest, which stars Jacki Weaver as a churchy Texan conservative who inherits her late son’s San Francisco drag club: it’s bright-pink marshmallow fluff, but the irrepressible Weaver sells it.

Claudia Weill’s landmark 1978 indie – made on a shoestring budget of $80,000 – finally gets the Criterion Collection release it deserves. Unusual for its time (hell, unusual even now) in its frank, casual depiction of female friendship separate from the concerns and influence of men, it holds up beautifully: loose, funny and affecting, while its enduring influence on film-makers such as Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach and Lena Dunham is plain to see.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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