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March 6, 2012 • 10:00 am
Blue Note – A Story of Modern Jazz (Full Documentary)
Filed under: Audiophile, Jazz, Video, Vinyl, Alfred Lion, Blue Note, Francis Wolff
Thanks for posting this. I finally get to see this film, although it took me some time to figure out how to do it, cause it’s blocked here on German Youtube because of the soundtrack.
I have so much thoughts on this film, I’m probably not going to be able to share them all, but I’ll try. The film has some very fine moments and the fact that it was shot in ’96-’97 meant that we got to see some people who are dead now. [Andrew Hill was still around. Also Gil Mellé, what a cool guy.] There is also a wealth of personal photographs and super 8 films from Lion & Wolff I hadn’t seen before – it was mesmerizing seeing that.
But overall I think it’s a flawed documentary. It has a very disorienting structure and a strange way of juxtaposing unrelated footage to the point where I think that they didn’t do their homework properly. You often hear a piece of music, but they show you the photograph of a totally unrelated musician. Also, lots of times I was sitting there and thinking “What does this have to do with Blue Note?”. Rather random historical footage, jarring edits from one subject to the other, but a lot of repetitions, too (like listing twice the names of the musicians associated with Blue Note). And too much video footage of jazz performances that had nothing to do with Blue Note (and I’m not a fan of the Blue Note reunion concert from the 80′s either).
I wish they would have stuck with the Alfred Lion era of Blue Note. Way too much “acid jazz” references in the film. I admit it was through acid jazz (and soul music) that I discovered jazz and Blue Note, but seen through the cold eyes of today, acid jazz was nothing more than a trend. For a filmmaker I think it’s important to be able to distinguish between a trend and a real historical movement.
And boy, don’t get me started on the sound mixing. Horrendous. If you’re going to do a music documentary, then at least let me have some moments where there is no music playing. Jazz isn’t very good as background music anyway, because it requires so much attention from the listener. But having it blasting all the time was nauseating.
I see Blue Note much differently now than I did ten years ago. Maybe had I seen this film back then, I would have liked it. But I find it has aged very badly. I think we need another Blue Note documentary, more charming, more focused and more elegant.
I agree with most of what you wrote. My main problem with the film was that they didn’t focus on a lot of key things, while they focused on extraneous things that didn’t matter one iota. Looking back at it, it was a huge missed opportunity. An opportunity that will never come back in some situations. I’ll highlight what I did not like.
1. Spending inordinate amounts of time on commentary from people like Carlos Santana and most notably DJ Smash. They had no business being in this film, other than making it contemporary, and in the case of DJ Smash, making it look hip. It’s a silly proposition because Blue Note is hip already. No one is watching a film about the history of Blue Note records for DJ Smash, or to see videos of people in a NYC nightclub. It would have been great if they spent more time talking to the actual Blue Note musicians, having them tell their stories and narratives themselves. They had many of them there. A lot of them were alive when the film was made. Many of them have passed away now, so that opportunity is gone forever. It’s a hell of a thing to have someone else tell the narrative of your music, when you’re actually still there. What’s the point of having Santana and DJ Smash wax poetic about the music, when you have many of the musicians there themselves? The musician’s insight is the most important, it’s their music. They are the stars of the show. Lou Donaldson got to speak for maybe a minute or two. DJ Smash had an entire segment dedicated to him. Something is wrong with that. The best parts of the film are when those with the proper insight speak i.e. Gil Melle, Ruth Lion, Horace Silver, Michael Cuscuna, Herbie Hancock, Lorraine Gordon, Bob Cranshaw etc. If only they didn’t tamper with that. It should have had more input from people like Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Griffin, Lou Donaldson, Andrew Hill, Tommy Turrentine etc. How can they be a footnote in a Blue Note documentary, while Santana and DJ Smash got tons of airtime? I can’t stress enough how they messed that up. Why were we punished with DJ Smash and club scenes?
2. They wasted a lot of time on live performances from Junko Onishi and Cassandra Wilson. This was jarring, and I have no idea why it was included. They have nothing to do with Alfred Lionn, Francis Wolff and Blue Note in the 50s and 60s. It just didn’t fit, and it was a waste of time. I was fine with the reunion contest footage. Those were the architects of the Blue Note sound. It fits in the narrative. Junko Onishi and Cassandra Wilson don’t fit anywhere in that narrative.
3. There is no mention of how the civil rights movement and black power movement influenced a lot of the music. That’s a big oversight, if indeed it was one. All this is integral to understanding the sound, as well as many of the song and album titles. A lot of people still don’t know what The Freedom Rider by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers or what Let Freedom Ring by Jackie McLean reference with those titles. That’s a shame really, and you’re not a jazz fan if you don’t know that aspect of the music. In many cases, it was music of defiance and social justice.
4. Some of the edits were confusing. They’d be talking about a specific topic, or a particular musician, but then Grachan Moncur III would be playing in the background. Little things like that made no sense, and it made it look sloppy.
I could go on, but those are the major 4. That said, I think it’s still a worthwhile documentary to watch as there are some great insights from some people who are relevant to the narrative.
Thanks for taking the time to answer. I agree on all four accounts. Those are indeed the main points of criticism and you have described them eloquently.
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