Here’s an unusual film. It’s short for a modern feature at under 75 mins. It doesn’t have much of a plot but it packs in a great many ideas. After the announcement of its state sponsorship we are told that this is an ‘Example of Intonation’ [from?] ‘A Non-Profit Film Foundation’ (Alexander Sokurov’s Foundation). These credits (white on a black background) are accompanied by what sounds like a shuffling of papers. The first image on screen is a pair of soldiers running/stumbling down a steep slope towards us accompanied by the opening of a dramatic orchestral score and suddenly we see the conductor of the orchestra in mid-shot. He is in contemporary dress, the soldiers are from a much earlier period. For the next couple of minutes the image cuts between the soldiers, who have now caught up with their comrades, a raggle-taggle bunch with a horse pulling a cartload of ammunition and a machine-gun, and the players of the orchestra – seemingly it is an orchestra of young players, perhaps from a conservatory? In both locations the camera alternates between closer and longer shots. The camera eventually picks out a boy soldier, perhaps aged 14 or 15? He is being teased by the men. The filmic image of the soldiers is distinctive. There is a high degree of ‘grain’ and the colours are de-saturated so that the greens of the countryside and the browns of the uniforms merge into a sometimes hazy and almost nostalgic glow like early colour photographs. It is also ‘painterly’ in its presentation (see the image above). The corners of the image are rounded. The aspect ratio is hard to determine but it seems to me to be something like 1:1.54, unlike anything I am familiar with. (I measured its dimensions on my computer screen.)
The crosscutting between the orchestra and the soldiers lessens as the narrative develops. Yet as soon as the title, A Russian Youth by Alexander Zolotukhin, has disappeared (we easily identify that the film is going to be about the boy played by Vladimir Korolev), we are shown a close-up of the music score itself. Then, although we see less of the orchestra, we do hear the conductor’s instructions which are italicised in the subtitles so that we can distinguish them from the dialogue between the soldiers. As soon as the narrative begins to develop we forget about the orchestra but we know it is there. It ‘re-appears’ at the climax of the film with attention given to ferocious piano playing. I didn’t really notice the ‘intrusion’ of shots of the orchestra later on in the narrative. Perhaps there were some but I don’t remember them. What does this parallel cutting mean? I thought at first that because the filmic image of the soldiers seemed to refer to ‘silent’ cinema (albeit in the ‘wrong’ aspect ratio) the orchestra was meant to signify the players who would have been in the cinema orchestra in the 1910s. It occurs to me now that we do have an orchestra of young players who seem sometimes to be looking at a projected image of the young soldiers fighting for their lives. The Russians on screen are being encircled by German forces who seem much better armed and better led. Is this therefore an anti-war film? It doesn’t seem to be celebrating the prowess of Russian troops.
We are not told where the fighting is taking place nor when these events are unfolding but there is a brief scene in which some of the soldiers are distributing leaflets, suggesting that there is considerable unrest about the poor leadership of the armies and the inadequate provisions. Our hero ‘Aleksey’ is blinded in his first action by a German gas attack. He has been badly taught the primitive technique for covering his eyes. The Germans have gas masks. Such scenes (i.e. a gas attack on a defended trench position) suggest 1915 or 1916. The gas was perhaps chlorine, used by the Germans on both fronts. The blinded Aleksey is helped by many of his comrades and taken under the wing of one or another. In a sense, he is no worse off than before. In fact he makes his one positive contribution to the Russian effort by acting as a ‘listening observer’ and giving warning of approaching enemy aircraft using a primitive listening device like a gigantic ear trumpet.
I found this film very watchable and intriguing. I’m not sure what it all means but it certainly explores ideas about sound an image in cinema. Several commentators and reviewers have attempted to link the film to the considerable achievements of the later Soviet Cinema in producing films about ‘The Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-45. Tarkovsky’s film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Elim Klimov’s Come and See (1985) are the two films referenced, both featuring young characters. I haven’t seen Come and See, but Ivan’s Childhood has a young central character who is quite unlike the the village boy in A Russian Youth. The two wars are very different, one largely before the 1917 Revolution, the other a ‘Patriotic War’. Having said that, I was reminded of Aleksai German’s Trial on the Road (1971/85), simply on the basis that there is a futility expressed in these anti-war films. In A Russian Youth, the final scenes, accompanied by that ferocious piano playing seem to take us back to the beginning with a similar scene of soldiers trying to haul a heavy gun up a hill. The difference is that the men (and the boy) are now prisoners being forced up the hill by their captors.
The credits reveal that the music by Rachmaninoff is the 1909 Piano Concerto No.3 Op. 30 and the Symphonic Dances from 1940 Op. 45. The orchestra is the Tavrichesky Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Golikov and it is indeed a youth orchestra. Researching the orchestra I came across this excellent piece by Baradwaj Rangan who watched the film on MUBI India. Rangan makes some very interesting points. He’s explored the music and the conductor’s comments as they are juxtaposed with the visual images and dialogue of the soldiers and finds them often connected directly, as if the conductor is giving instructions to his players in a similar way to the orders given to the soldiers, e.g. “Let’s take a break there”. The punchline of Rangan’s piece is to argue that A Russian Youth has much more of an emotional charge through its formal operations than Sam Mendes’ acclaimed ‘one take’ film 1917. I decided not to watch the Mendes film (mainly because I feared something like what Rangan suggests about it). But I do go with the view that A Russian Youth is a very emotionally-involving film.
I was struck by how well writer-director Zolotukhin and his crew (cinematographer Ayrat Yamilov, production designer Elena Zhukova, costume designer Olga Bakhareva and sound designer Fonin Andrey) create the world of 1915. I thought afterwards how it seemed much more ‘real’ than those colourised images of 1914-18 newsreels presented by Peter Jackson that received so much attention a few years ago. A Russian Youth is very much worth 75 minutes of your time. Don’t miss it if you get the chance to see it.
This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.
This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.
The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma).
The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.
The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?
Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.
This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.
This is the second film in which Ingmar Bergman directs from his own original script (following Prison, 1949) without any other writers involved. Once again the script features a flashback, this time a long flashback that follows a decisive moment and gradually leads back to it. The film’s title perhaps refers to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the final movement which is being rehearsed by an orchestra in Helsingborg, as the film opens. The performance of the same piece then closes the narrative. When the flashback occurs it takes us back several years to when Stig (Stig Olin), a young man with ambitions to be a violin soloist, and Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) have just joined the orchestra, she as the lone woman violinist. The orchestra is led by Sönderby (Victor Sjöström), who is frustrated by the day’s rehearsal and the lack of progress.
As we might expect, Stig and Marta are going to get together and will eventually marry. The main part of the narrative will focus on their difficult relationship. Sönderby acts like a surrogate father to the couple, visiting them at key moments at home and providing a sounding board or a wall against which Stig can bash his ego. There are only three other significant players, Birger Malmsten, another Bergman favourite, turns up as a rather smooth member of the orchestra with a spiv’s moustache, always mocking Stig. A young woman Nelly and her much older husband Mikael also befriend Stig.
If this makes the film sound dull in visual terms, I hasten to confirm that it is lensed by the great Gunnar Fischer who offers a number of rich compositions. Helsingborg is on the coast of north-west Scania with Denmark a few miles across the water. Stig and Marta live by the sea at one point. There are train journeys and a wedding in the Town Hall. As well as the central importance of Beethoven’s 9th, the orchestra and Stig at various points play Mendelssohn, Mozart and Smetana.
I was tempted to write that this Bergman narrative seems more coherent than in the earlier films but I’m not sure that is the case. I have mixed feelings about the film. It is well staged and the performances are strong. I am generally against the idea that an unpleasant character means that a film cannot work with audiences, but I confess that I did find Stig intensely annoying and at times quite stupid. On the other hand we (i.e. many men) all do stupid things at times in relationships. It doesn’t help that Maj-Britt Nilsson is beautiful and seemingly sensible. How could anyone behave in that way towards her? But then we know that Bergman’s characters are going to be tortured by self-doubt and to feel that they have been abandoned. In this case, Stig is the artist who thinks he has the talent to be supremely successful, but also suffers from the self-doubt that will prevent him attaining his goals. He doesn’t seem to realise that working on his relationship with Marta will probably improve his playing.
To Joy is closer in feel to the realism of Port of Call, rather than the expressionism of Prison, but there are certainly some melodrama moments and the orchestra setting provides the film with music and a representation of ‘artistic performance’. Also, two significant objects are carefully positioned/foregrounded at the start of the flashback and will eventually be revealed as such. At another point, a bottle of nail varnish is tipped over and begins to soak into a table-cloth. The film is monochrome but we assume that the nail polish is red. Bergman was a Hitchcock fan. The two ‘significant objects’ act in the narrative in ways that are familiar from Hitchcock’s films and Bergman follows the Hitchcock practice of appearing in his own films. Here he is an expectant father waiting in a maternity hospital.
As in all of Bergman’s films, there is plenty of evidence here that Bergman and his team have many good ideas about how to stage scenes. They can also draw on very skilled actors who appear to be keen to work on Bergman films. Whether I enjoy the films seems to depend mainly on what Bergman is trying to achieve. I think I feel that he doesn’t like people very much or that he wants to explore the demons in his character’s heads because of his own demons. I feel that as I move forwards through his filmography that I find it harder to get involved with his characters. I’m trying to understand why many of the directors I admire were inspired by Bergman early in their careers. I need to watch Margarethe von Trotta’s film about him and read some more critiques.
Perhaps Bergman’s lack of interest in the sociology of his characters is my problem? We never learn anything about Stig’s background and all we know about Marta is that she has ‘grandparents’, but since this is mentioned in a family context this might refer to her own parents, i.e. the grandparents of her children. This contrasts with Stig’s relationships with both Sönderby and Mikael – older men who take the place of his father? What this film does provide, however, is babies – even though they follow previous abortions.
(Most of the images above come from dvdbeaver.com where you can find details of the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film.)
Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s eighth feature film, placing her alongside Sally Potter as the most prolific female director in British cinema since Muriel Box in the 1950s/60s. But I don’t think Chadha gets the credit she deserves for popular films which tell important stories. The early signs are that her latest film might be subject to the same criticisms that were aimed at some of her other features (‘feelgood’ doesn’t have to mean a ‘bad’ film). So I’ll just state from the off that I thoroughly enjoyed Blinded by the Light. I hope it reaches the widest possible audience and that Gurinder Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker are properly appreciated.
The intriguing aspect of her new film is how much it follows the same kind of narrative as that of her most successful film Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002), yet Blinded by the Light is a form of biopic, very much the autobiographical story of Sarfraz Manzoor even if Chadha and her partner Paul Mayeda Berges have shaped it for an international release. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Manzoor was born in Pakistan and brought up in Luton and Chadha was born in Kenya and brought up in Southall. They might be ten years apart in age but their experiences of being ‘British Asians’ in the Thatcher years with their more overt manifestations of racism will have been similar. Chadha has said that the reappearance of racism and fascism on the streets following the Brexit referendum was one of the factors driving this production. Just to make the point clearer that the stories are similar, Chadha includes a sequence in which the Manzoor character Javed takes his sister to a ‘day-time night club’, the only way young South Asian girls could get to a dance in the 1980s (because of parental restrictions) – and a cultural phenomenon Chadha included in her first groundbreaking documentary short, I’m British But . . . (UK 1990).
Blinded by the Light offers Bruce Springsteen in place of David Beckham and a 16 year-old boy instead of an 18 year-old girl and, because it is Sarfraz Manzoor’s own story, it’s a ‘period drama’ set in 1987/8 rather than West London in the Blair era. A brief prologue introduces us to Javed as a young teenager with his only close friend Matt and we get an early sense of how isolated and trapped he feels in Luton (for overseas readers, Luton is a large town 30 miles NW of London and in the 1980s best known for the Vauxhall (GM) car factory).
The main narrative finds Javed, now 16 and moving to Luton’s Sixth Form College. Here he meets another British Asian, Roops, a Sikh who gives him a Springsteen cassette, explaining “Bruce is the Boss – he knows how you feel”. Though it takes Javed time to appreciate that Bruce definitely does speak to him about the things that matter – getting out of Luton and following his dream – he soon becomes a follower and embraces Springsteen’s lyrics as inspiration for his own writing. Javed’s dreams mean defying his father (he is studying English not Economics and wants to become a writer, not an accountant). When his father is made redundant by Vauxhall, Javed’s obsession to be a writer is in danger of causing a family rift. They need him to make money and to support his father. This is based on a true story so we know Javed will become a journalist (Sarfraz Mansoor is a successful journalist and radio and TV personality) but to do so he needs the support of an inspiring English teacher (played convincingly by Hayley Atwell) with her contacts. Will Javed get to America and visit Bruce’s home town? Will he get a girlfriend and will he learn to respect his family? Well what do you think?
The narrative itself is certainly not original (and some of the college scenes are over-familiar) but Chadha includes two elements which give it a difference. Firstly, she doesn’t shy away from the racism on the streets including the National Front marches. Javed may himself draw back from confrontation with the racists and fascists at first but he can’t ignore the threat towards his family and his embrace of Springsteen gives him confidence to stand up and be counted. The other ‘difference’ is the way in which Chadha uses the Springsteen songs.
Bruce Springsteen liked Sarfraz Manzoor’s book and he gave Chadha free rein to use his songs. Because Javed is a writer and responds to Springsteen’s lyrics, Chadha decided to emphasise them in various sequences where Javed sings along to the songs on his Walkman and the lyrics appear on screen bouncing around Javed a line at a time. I remember Danny Boyle using a similar technique in Slumdog Millionaire where the subtitles escaped their usual position across the bottom of the frame.
I enjoyed the use of the songs. I’m not an obsessive Springsteen fan but these are mainly the well-known songs from the period between ‘Born to Run’ (1975) and ‘Born in the USA’ (1984) so they worked for me. However, I did wonder if the balance of songs to dramatic scenes would be right for those least familiar with Springsteen. The key question may be how the film plays to younger audiences. I suspect that the film skews more towards a 35+ audience but I would hope Javed’s story appeals to younger audiences and especially to young British Asians. On its first weekend in the UK, it made No 4 in the chart and it also made it into the North American Top 10 this weekend. But both weekends were relatively ‘soft’ in terms of screen averages for wide releases. If the film does skew older, the midweek figures may be healthier but the effect is arguably less so in the summer holiday period. The film had made £2 million in the UK after eleven days and $4.45 million in the first three days in North America.
All the performances in the film are strong and mostly from newcomers playing the youth roles. I want to pick out the redoubtable Kulvinder Ghir as Javed’s Dad and the cameos by Rob Dryden as Matt’s Dad, Sally Phillips as the Sixth Form College Principal and Marcus Brigstocke as a Tory parent bemused by Javed’s appearance as his daughter’s boyfriend. All four actors are veterans of UK TV comedy. I also want to commend the cinematography by Ben Smithard and all of the design team re-creating 1980s Luton. Springsteen’s music is to the fore, but having A. R. Rahman responsible for the overall score makes Blinded by the Light a winner.
This shortish documentary feature (68 mins) was screened as part of Bradford’s Refugee Week with various intros and post-screening comments from members of the local Sudanese community in the city. The screen at the Delius Arts Centre is located in front of the stained glass windows of the late 19th century German church in the city (which still holds a service once a month, I think?). Bradford received many German migrants in the late 19th century and now it receives migrants from Africa and West Asia. It’s great to live in a city that welcomes those who need to move here for whatever reason.
Beats of the Antonov is a film by the Sudanese cinematographer and now director Hajooj Kuka who was educated in Beirut and in the US and who seems now to live between several places. He returned to Sudan to make this film with the backing of South African producer Steven Markovitz, who has helped bring many African stories to the screen. There has been plenty going on in Sudan since 2014 and the regime of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir who had held power since 1989 was finally ended in April this year after waves of protest in Sudanese cities. The situation is still highly volatile. This film is about the attempts by the al-Bashir regime to crush the resistance of the people of the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. The conflict is still live today. This area is now on the Southern border of Sudan since the partition of the country which created South Sudan in 2011 and there are refugees from the South in the area.
The film’s clever title refers to both the bombs dropped on villages by Antonov transport aircraft and Russian-built jet fighters and the music produced by the people on the ground as their means of solidifying their resistance and maintaining their strong community bonds. Hajooj Kuka started out thinking he was making a film about refugees and bombings but discovered a form of music and songs that he had never heard before (see the clip below). The music is produced using improvised musical instruments and many of the songs celebrate the everyday lives of the people of small communities under attack.
As filming progressed it became clear that the musical culture of these villages was all tied up with the fundamental question of ‘identity’ in Khartoum. Sudan is a large geographical area that contains many groups with different language cultures, different religious beliefs and a strong sense of identity. The Ottoman Empire and then the British Imperial administrations from 1899 up to Sudanese independence shifted between policies that either maintained or attempted to obliterate regional differences. Since 1956 there has been an attempt to ‘standardise’ Sudanese culture as Arabic-speaking and Islamic, something generally resisted by peoples from different backgrounds calling for recognition of their individual cultural identities. Kuka himself explains in the second clip below how he soon became aware of the importance of this in the mountains and how he started to reflect on his own identity. There are several comments in the film by local people about their ‘split’ identity between local and national ‘Sudanese’. One example that Kuka explores is the ‘girls’ music’ sung by some of the young women in the villages. The elders don’t like this music because it isn’t ‘traditional’, but neither is it like the commercial pop music played in Khartoum. The ‘girls’ compose their own lyrics about their lives sung to simple tunes. The dilemma for the local people is how to preserve one identity but not become ‘second-class citizens’ in a national sense. But in the meantime, how do they fight against the bombers? The film does include footage of the paramilitary forces of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army).
This is a remarkable film that Hajooj Kaka made with the people of the region and which he has now taken around the world since its showing at Toronto in 2014. Not surprisingly it provoked lots of comments from the Sudanese in the audience in Bradford, including one from the area in question. The complicated political history of the country and its current issues are very important for the Sudanese people and their families in the UK. It was a privilege to be part of the audience and to very much enjoy the film – and also to realise just how much there still is to learn about British imperialist and colonialist practices in Africa and their role in the damaged future lives of ex-colonial subjects.
“OFFBEAT is an events-based producer connecting jazz, improv & experimental music to the world of film and the moving image.” So runs the introduction to the website of Offbeat Fest. Offbeat has produced several events in London this year which explore the world of jazz on film. The latest event was held at the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington on Sunday 11 December. The session began with 15 minutes of wonderful live jazz performed by saxophonist Tony Kofi who offered his own mélange of tunes from the soundtrack of Bertrand Tavernier’s classic jazz film ‘Round Midnight. Following a 30th Anniversary screening of the film, Kofi returned with Selwyn Harris of Jazzwise Magazine and the distributor of jazz film soundtrack records. These two took part in a Q&A about the film chaired by the jazz journalist and broadcaster Kevin Le Gendre.
This was an interesting and highly enjoyable event hosted in one of my favourite cinemas. I’m not qualified to comment on the jazz itself (except to say that Tony Kofi’s playing and his advice to the young musicians in the audience seemed very fine.) The Q&A was inevitably taken up with the jazz performed in the film and the authenticity of the representation of the quite specific period of music and the lives of the players and the musical milieu. I’ll focus my comments on the film itself.
The only disappointing aspect of the day was that this Anniversary screening of the film was projected from DVD (I’m assuming so based on the image quality). It’s a shame that there isn’t even a Blu-ray available for such a high quality film. For the opening scenes of the film, director Bertrand Tavernier opted for dark and noirish scenes which the DVD struggled to deliver. The remainder of the film worked much better, especially as both the ‘look’ and the mood of the film brightened. A decision was taken to use what I assume are the English subtitles for audiences with hearing impairments. Although the majority of dialogue is actually in English, the delivery style of the central character is quite idiosyncratic. But it is difficult to ignore subs and I did find it a little irritating – though the sheer pleasure the film invokes did overcome such irritations.
‘Round Midnight is a fictionalised story about a legendary American jazz performer who spends time in Paris in 1959. ‘Dale Turner’ is played by the real legendary player Dexter Gordon and the character’s story is based on events associated with the equally ‘real’ Bud Powell and Lester Young. Dale is a saxophonist whose profile developed through building on the work of bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker, but who is now suffering from alcohol and drug abuse and shabby treatment as an artist in New York. He decides to take up an offer to play at the ‘Blue Note’ club in Paris where he is watched by a fierce landlady and the club’s owner who both try to keep Dale ‘dry’ and ‘clean’. He escapes their close attention only when he meets a devoted fan – a young French comic-book artist Francis (François Cluzet) who lives with his young teenage daughter Berangere. When Dale moves in with Francis and Berangere he finds a new contentment and re-discovers his full creativity. This in turn will help him to reflect on his life and try to come to terms with the decisions he’s made (he’s around 60 and not in the best of health).
Tavernier is a French director who has drawn on his love of the classical cinemas of Hollywood and France, as well as aspects of British cinema (an unusual trait in French directors of his era). His two bold decisions were to cast Dexter Gordon rather than a film actor in the lead and to insist that as far as possible the jazz performances in the film (which are many more than usual) should be recorded live. This proved to be one of the topics picked up in the Q&A and to be seen as one of the main reasons why this is perhaps the best example of a fiction film with jazz as a central theme. In other films about the same era and personalities, the music is played by jazz professionals and mimed by actors. The Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988) was quoted as a film that doesn’t work for jazz fans because the miming removes the sense of live playing. In ‘Round Midnight, all the musicians playing at the Blue Note or in the recording studio are ‘real’ jazz players of note, albeit mainly younger ‘modern’ players interpreting the music of 1959 as arranged by Herbie Hancock – who plays the pianist in the club. Others such as Wayne Shorter, Billy Higgins, John McLaughlin and Freddie Hubbard play in Paris, Lyon and New York. The performance of Dexter Gordon, both as actor and as jazz performer has been very well received. It helps that he was 6′ 6″ tall and that he towers over François Cluzet (often seen rescuing him from bars/hospitals). Gordon in the film speaks like he plays – in a languorous, breathy way (hence the possible need for subtitles). His performance is part of an overall ‘effect’ – so that the film seems to be structured, the camera seems to move and frame the action (in a ‘Scope frame) in ways which suggest a jazz composition. I’m not sure I understand jazz well enough to appreciate this observation, but Tavernier himself quotes Michael Powell:
When Michael saw ‘Round Midnight he said that he understood jazz not by what the characters were saying but by the structure of the film and the way the camera moved. He got the emotion of jazz. (Interview in the Guardian, 2002)
I’m on safer ground with Powell and there is a direct Powell connection in the film. At one point in the recording studio, one of the players tells an anecdote from the Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) – which is a film (and a folk tale) about an artist eventually driven to their death through their obsession with their art. The anecdote is actually about two of the supporting characters, but all three are enmeshed in the tensions and conflicts that develop between artists, their art and the commercial demands of the art form. Coincidentally, The Red Shoes is also the favourite film of Powell’s other ardent supporter Martin Scorsese who appears in ‘Round Midnight as Dale’s sleazy and ruthless US manager/promoter in New York. What all this points to, for me, is Tavernier’s wish to place his love of jazz in the context of his own cinephilia and more general interest in the French-American cultural exchange. There is a sense in which the film consciously begins in a noir world of dingy hotels, dark alleyways and clubs. This is a noir world shot in a Paris studio with set designs by Alexandre Trauner, the veteran Hungarian migrant who entered the French film industry in the early 1930s and designed many of the classic ‘poetic realist’ films which were the precursors of film noir in Hollywood. After Dale Turner moves in with Francis, ‘Round Midnight makes much more use of location shooting around the streets of Paris (and one trip to the seaside). These sequences are closer to the freedom of la nouvelle vague – which was in full swing around the time of the setting of ‘Round Midnight. I was reminded of the scenes featuring a Paris hospital in Cléo de 5 à 7 as Francis dashes from one hospital to another searching for Dale. Tavernier’s regular DoP Bruno De Keyser handles both camera styles with aplomb. It’s not too difficult to see why Michael Powell related the look and feel of the film to the emotion of jazz. I should note that New York streets also feature and that some of the Paris scenes may actually have been shot in Lyon (Tavernier’s home city.)
In the trailer from Warner Bros. several of the above points are evident – as is the struggle Tavernier has had with his Anglophone films. The voiceover in the trailer is there to speak to the American audience and Tavernier becomes an ‘international director’. But despite this, ‘Round Midnight is a French film about the great art music of America.