Lost in the Movies: My #1 musical: Jammin' the Blues

My #1 musical: Jammin' the Blues

Today the Wonders in the Dark musical countdown comes to a close. In tribute, I am naming my favorite musical film, just as I named a #1 horror, #1 animation, and #1 noir in response to those countdowns (to wit: The Shining, Street of Crocodiles, and Laura).

Is Jammin' the Blues really a musical? Well, it certainly has plenty of music - in fact, it contains little else; the dynamic 10-minute short film (produced by Warner Brothers during World War II) fades up with the first notes of Lester Young's "Midnight Symphony," even before the credits roll or the opening narration, crisp as dried ice, informs us, "This is a jam session." (It actually isn't; all the music is prerecorded, as the visuals would be impossible if tied to live performance.) "The End" pops up on the screen before the film even seems to be over, with Cheshire-grinning drummer Jo Jones finishing just as the image fades to black. There's not only a musical score, but singing (Marie Bryant's beautifully touch-of-hoarse rendition of "Sunny Side of the Street") and dancing (Bryant's seriously simmering boogie with Archie Savage, against a bright-white background, anticipates Mulholland Drive sixty years later).

There is no story. There are no "characters" though the musicians are obviously playing an abstract role of "cool-as-shit jazzman," a refreshing change from the shuffling, shucking African-American stereotypes of the time (Barney Kessel, on guitar, was the only white performer, forced to stand in the shadows and dye his hands with berry juice to fit in with the black-on-black aesthetic). Nothing "links" the songs except that they flow seamlessly into one another, with Bryant strolling sexily into the picture about a minute before her solo vocal begins, and later Young and Harry Edison casually seating themselves on the periphery of the frame as Bryant concludes "Sunny Side." Big Sid Catlett rolls right into the final, eponymous, number, tosses his drumstick in the air and it's caught by Jo Jones who doesn't miss a beat, literally.

Jammin' the Blues may not be a musical film in the conventional sense, with a fusion of music and narrative, but it's everything I ask out of the movie-music marriage and more. Anyway, my favorite musicals, despite the emotional power of a Fiddler on the Roof or West Side Story, tend not to be the ones where the music is a part of the drama, but rather where the music leaps in and takes over, subverting rather than fulfilling narrative, overpowering removed, Apollonian concerns with proportion and perspective, dominating everything and transcending the demands of conventional filmmaking and storytelling. The Busby Berkeley musicals are like that; to a certain extent, the Astaire-Rogers films are too, when the divine dances blow away the plot strands like lingering cobwebs. Certainly a later generation of music films, from the rock concert documentaries to the hypnotic music videos of the 1990s and 2000s, also fulfill this legacy.

And in a way, Jammin' the Blues is the missing link between the music-first musicals of the 1930s and the videos of a later era. I first found out about it only a few months ago, scrolling through the Wonders in the Dark archives and discovering a short piece Tony d'Ambra had written in an enthusiastic flush following his own initial viewing. He called his post "The Hottest Music Video That Never Was," and indeed the short has all the hallmarks of a video avant la lettre. It is totally built around a recorded number, which constitutes its "text" so to speak (in other words, there is nothing else dictating the flow of the film except for the dynamic of the music itself). It is abstract and avant-garde in its approach, using a sophisticated sense of graphic design (opening with a circle that turns out to be Lester Young's hat, revealed as he slowly raises his head and puts instrument to lips). The lighting, spare set decoration, and camera angles create a kind of never-neverland on the studio soundstage with ink-black and pure-white backdrops, no doors or walls or ceilings in sight. Most importantly, the cuts and camera movements are dictated by the ebb and flow of the soundtrack.

But because this is jazz and not rock or hip-hop, there's a sophisticated, smoldering sense of cool restraint, a calm intensity, that we don't normally see in the hyperkinetic video era. The edits don't come fast (at least until the energetic finale) but when they do come, we feel them as sharply as any television-era smash-cut. This pregnant withholding is there in that aforementioned moment when Bryant, hips swaying, head held aloft, weaves between the musicians in anticipation of her own moment on the sunny side. It's present as Bryant herself sings, tapping her fingers on the chair back, rocking her head to the offbeat, as we switch between close-up and artfully composed group shot (this film is a master-class in composition). And it's unavoidable when we cut to Lester Young casually lighting a cigarette, sax laid out on his lap, shaking that match while squinting through the smoky haze at Bryant. That, incidentally, is one of those moments in life and art when you see someone so much infinitely cooler than you'll ever be, and you aren't jealous, you're just in awe and want to relish that radiant yet restrained hipness by humble proxy.

Jammin' the Blues was a one-off, directed by LIFE photographer Gjon Mili. It was nominated for an Oscar and entered in the National Film Registry long after. It's in several spots on You Tube and available as an extra on the noir film Blues in the Night which is where Tony stumbled across it and how I came into its possession after watching it a dozen or so times on You Tube. I still haven't seen the feature film on the DVD, but I've watched Jammin' over and over and ripped the soundtrack onto my iPod, where I listen to the songs in a loop. They're great to hear, but even greater to watch. A great musical? Perhaps. A great music video? Why not. A great film? Absolutely.

I love this movie.

A clip from Jammin' the Blues appears at 3:45 in "Dreaming in Wartime," a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies." But why not watch the whole thing?

I contributed three entries to the countdown itself: The Gay Divorcee, 42nd Street, and An American in Paris.


Jon said...

Fascinating Joel. You make a fine case for this one as your #1. I admit I've never heard of it until now, so you've given me a reason to watch it and check it out. Thanks.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Jon! Check out the You Tube embed I included ASAP; it's only 10 minutes and you'll thank me! :)

Jon said...

Hey Joel! Haha I didn't realize you posted the whole thing. When I played it I got stuck on 1'18" for some reason. I tried it again and am still stuck. Not sure if it's my computer?

Joel Bocko said...

Hmmm, weird - I wonder if it's because I enlarged the embedded clip? It plays ok on my screen, but try clicking through to You Tube (or searching for it there). Definitely worth the effort!

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