The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Jammin' the Blues (1944/USA/dir. Gjon Mili) appeared at #12 on my original list.
What it is • The opening credits roll over an abstract shape - two circles, one inside the other. Then the shape tips up, revealing itself as the top of a hat, worn by Lester Young. Slowly he lifts his saxophone to his lips and begins to play, and the whole ten-minute short films reels out effortlessly from that point. Well, not effortlessly exactly. The musicians are in top form, both on the soundtrack filled back to front with three of their songs - "Midnight Symphony" (introduced by a narrator in the only lines of spoken word), "On the Sunny Side of the Street" (the only song with lyrics, sung by Marie Bryant), and the title track (accompanied by an unadorned, infectious dance from Bryant and Archie Savage). They are also working hard in front of the camera, but in a different way: precisely miming to their previous recording in the fashion of MTV music videos that would emerge thirty to forty years later. And behind the scenes, director Gjon Mili - an innovative LIFE photographer - carefully arranges lighting effects and camera movements with director of photography Robert Burks, while setting up the perfectly-timed cut-ins and cutaways for editor Everett Dodd (brilliantly, the movie will sometimes jump to a musician who isn't playing at the moment, as when Young calmly lights a cigarette and watches Bryant perform). All of this hard work feels effortless because it flows so naturally and because everyone seems to be having a good time. I think of the film as being massively underrated (it is), even writing for a caption in my #WatchlistScreenCaps series a few years ago, "The greatest fucking musical of all time, and no one knows it!" (of course when I tweeted this someone enthusiastically identified it right away). In fact, it was selected by the National Film Registery and nominated for Best Short the year it came out. Still, it deserves to be even more widely recognized not just as a notable example of its form but a small, perfectly-crafted masterpiece that can stand with the much longer musical narratives of that time or any other. However you categorize it, Jammin' the Blues sizzles.
Why I like it •
I discovered this around the same time as the Betty Boop Snow White, another highly-placed jazz-inflected short film on this list. Likewise, I owed this discovery to a movie blogger, in this case Tony D'Ambra who posted quick commentary and a series of stills on Wonders in the Dark under the title "The Hottest Music Video That Never Was: Jammin' the Blues 1944." A commentator posted the video itself beneath the piece, and my two-word comment can be found there too (apparently this a film so good it makes me swear, repeatedly). Now let me offer a bit longer commentary (though if you want a multi-paragraph analysis, follow onto the "more from me" link below). Jammin' the Blues is gorgeous from a filmmaking perspective because, aside from multiple exposure techniques that echo Mili's groundbreaking stroboscopic still work, its images are often stark, almost minimalist. Though there are enough musicians and instruments to fill the frame, almost nothing else exists in the world of the film - just a functional chair to sit in, and, of course, smoke wafting from a cigarette. The background is either bright white or pitch black, so that we remain undistracted from what's important. This is cinema as graphic design, utilizing light and perspective to hold each element in strikingly perfect position. But this isn't cinema as pure abstraction either, because the most important elements are the people themselves - and they are documented with loving attention on both sides: Mili is clearly fascinated with their ineffable cool, and they seem bemused by Mili's eye for stylized arrangement. What we have here is a perfect match between the camera's ability to control its environment in order to craft dreamlike images, and the camera's ability to witness the human spark of movement and expression that can only arise naturally from the performer. Jammin' in the Blues is a snapshot and a painting at the same time. And of course, the music is fantastic.
More from me • I reviewed the film in 2011, declaring it my #1 musical of all time a couple months before placing it on this list. A clip appears at 3:46 in "Dreaming in Wartime", a chapter in my video clip series "32 Days of Movies".
How you can see it • Jammin' the Blues is on YouTube and Vimeo (in several spots - look for the ones that are ten minutes long). There are several DVDs on Netflix that include the short: Young/Parker/Davis Great Performances, Blues in the Night, and Norman Granz: Improvisation.
What do you think? • Which other jazz shorts do you like as much, nearly as much, or even more? What stylistic links do you see with Mili's photography? If you're familiar with the work of Young, Bryant, and the other musicians, do you notice any differences between their self-presentation in this film and how they appear onstage (or in other recorded performances)?
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Yesterday: The Mirror (#13)
Tomorrow: Citizen Kane (#11)