by GREG KING.
“We’ve always wanted to do something that focuses around a particular person,” says ACMI film programmer Spiro Economopoulos as he explains the rationale behind this year’s Jazz On Film Festival. This year the small film festival, which runs as part of the Melbourne Jazz Festival, features Woody Allen and Terence Blanchard, a jazz musician and prolific composer of film soundtracks.
Blanchard has composed for over thirty films, and is best known for his numerous collaborations with Spike Lee, which began on Jungle Fever in 1991. Blanchard even ghosted for Denzel Washington’s trumpet playing in Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. The collaboration between Blanchard and Lee is a bit like that creative partnership between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, suggests Economopoulos.
This year, ACMI are showing two of the Spike Lee/Terence Blanchard collaborations – 25th Hour and Summer Of Sam. Economopoulos admits because of their extensive collaboration, there were quite a few films to choose from. “But 25th Hour and Summer Of Sam represented a really good range I think, and were different in the kind of work that Blanchard has done with Spike Lee. So I thought it would be nice to highlight the vastly different soundtracks and look at the breadth of his work.
“They’re interesting films to look at I guess in terms of the richness of his body of work,” elaborates Economopoulos. “He swings from being quite elegaic to being quite mournful. Summer Of Sam has this really pulsating kind of disco soundtrack, and is really exciting.”
In 25th Hour Edward Norton plays a convicted New York drug dealer who re-evaluates his life in the 24 remaining hours before facing a seven-year jail term. Summer Of Sam is set in New York in the summer of 1977, and unfolds against the background of the reign of terror of the serial killer christened the Son of Sam. The film focuses on the residents of an Italian-American neighbourhood who live in fear and distrust of one another. What is impressive about the movie is the way Lee uses music as a way of getting us into this particular community. The film becomes a microcosm of this group of people and its exploding social culture. It was the disco era as well. “It’s a very dynamic kind of film,” continues Economopoulos. “It’s really exciting and it looks great on the big screen actually, fantastic. And it has a lot of the usual Lee trademark touches. I can’t remember if he does it here, but he always has that great tracking shot where it looks like someone is walking but they’re gliding along, and he always seems to squeeze that into his movies.”
And the other film featuring Blanchard’s score which is screening is 2008’s Cadillac Records, which never had a theatrical release here. This is the first time it has actually been screened on the cinema screen. The film chronicles the rise of Chess Records, a small recording studio, which began recording some of the Blues musicians of Chicago in the 1950s. The film has a pretty good cast playing some of the legendary figures from that exciting era of music. Beyonce Knowles plays the legendary Etta James, Mos Def plays Chuck Berry, Jeffrey Wright plays Muddy Waters, Eric Bogosian plays the legendary Alan Freed, and Oscar winner Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess. Brody also appears in Summer Of Sam. “So he’s featured twice this year,” says Economopoulos, “which is really interesting. That was a complete accident.”
As for the two Woody Allen films playing in the festival? Economopoulos says that the gods actually aligned with Woody, because ACMI are also showing a documentary on him as well. “We thought it was a great opportunity to showcase some of his work, because I think in terms of jazz and jazz soundtracks you can’t go past Woody. So I think those two personalities aligned in a really great way.”
Bullets Over Broadway is a comedy set against the background of Broadway. But it is also set in the jazz era, as the Roaring 20s were the Golden Age of jazz as well. Woody’s films are populated with jazz, and Bullets Over Broadway is no exception. Bullets Over Broadway is a really great movie that captures that energy, and that’s why that comes in there, says Economopoulos. Sweet And Lowdown is specifically about jazz, and stars Sean Penn as a jazz musician.
“It’s kind of interesting, because I saw a documentary recently and jazz was a big part of him,” he continues. “This could have been a massive Woody Allen festival actually, to be honest, because there are so many films that relate either directly or indirectly to his relationship and love of jazz.”
As a sidebar, ACMI isalso screening Robert B Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary, which is a very thorough and comprehensive look at Allen and his movies, spanning his forty year career. “It’s great,” Economopoulos enthuses. “And if you’re a Woody Allen fan, as I am, you’ll have a great time with it. But even if you’re not it’s a really great film for the recently initiated. It’s very thorough and comprehensive.
“I was talking to somebody about this the other day, and I said that there is so much more they could have put in it really. You don’t realise what an incredibly dense body of work he has. And it goes right up until Midnight In Paris as well, so it’s fairly current. What I do like about it actually is that it really hones in on him and his films. In terms of his personal life there’s a little bit of biography at the beginning, but it really is about him as a filmmaker, and I think that’s good in a way. There may be place for another kind of documentary, like that Roman Polanski one that delves into other parts of his life.
“But I want to hear about Woody Allen and his films, not so much about his personal life, so I was really impressed with it. And that screens well after the Jazz On Film program finishes, so there will be plenty of opportunities for people to see that.”
The Jazz On Film Festival runs from June 3 until June 9, and screens at ACMI cinemas. Check daily newspapers or the ACMI website for screening details.