Total Recall

Definitive Jazz Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at some of the best jazz films in Hollywood history.

by | March 30, 2016 | Comments


Don Cheadle brings his Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead to theaters this weekend, and given that this month has also brought us Ethan Hawke in the Chet Baker-inspired Born to Be Blue, we decided there could be no better moment to devote a feature to some of the best jazz films in Hollywood history. From groundbreaking arthouse efforts to Oscar-winning crowd-pleasers, there’s something for everyone here, so tune up — it’s time for Total Recall!

Bird (1988) 83%

While he was busy helping shepherd Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser into theaters, Clint Eastwood was also working on Bird, his 1988 Charlie Parker biopic starring Forest Whitaker as the brilliant — and infamously troubled — saxman. Although the project lingered in development for years, Eastwood ultimately succeeded in providing a compelling window into the too-brief life and career of a true jazz giant — and while some fans cried foul over the behind-the-scenes shenanigans employed to create the soundtrack, there’s no arguing the unabashed love he brought to the project, or the overall compelling results onscreen. As Hal Hinson put it for the Washington Post, “Even though, thematically, the movie won’t come clear, Eastwood has succeeded so thoroughly in communicating his love of his subject, and there’s such vitality in the performances, that we walk out elated, juiced on the actors and the music.”

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Cabin in the Sky (1943) 85%

When Cabin in the Sky arrived in 1943, many theaters still refused to screen films featuring black performers in central roles, making its release a considerable gamble for MGM — and one that happily paid off with an Oscar-nominated hit. While the film’s racial dynamics have aged about as well as you might expect given its vintage, it was admirably forward-thinking in some respects given the context of its time, and it offered a richly deserved spotlight to a roster of performers that included Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong. “Cabin in the Sky,” crowed the New York Times, “is a bountiful entertainment.”

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The Connection (1961) 95%

Acclaimed director Shirley Clarke made her feature-length debut with this 1961 adaptation of the Jack Gelber play, which uses a group of jazz musicians waiting for a score from their dealer as the launchpad for a loose, thought-provoking, and ultimately groundbreaking look at music and addiction in the beatnik era. The experience, according to Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, adds up to “A lean, mean saga of jazz, junk and rebellion.”

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Arguably the most iconic demonstration of the city’s central role in the thriving jazz scene of the era, photographer Art Kane’s “A Great Day in Harlem” received its documentary due with director Jean Bach’s 1994 film of the same name. Taking a fond look back at the time and place surrounding Kane’s photo of 57 jazz greats, Harlem provides a seamlessly entertaining look at its subjects while offering a smartly assembled overview of jazz as a whole. “It’s a funny and moving film,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jesse Hamlin, “whose swinging rhythms and informal tone capture a feeling for the music, the people who make it and the affection and respect they feel for each other and the art form.”

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Jazz on a Summer's Day (2020) 100%

The Newport Jazz Festival is one of the longest-running events of its kind in America, and along the way it’s played host to an incredible list of talented musicians. Jazz on a Summer’s Day, filmed during the festival’s 1958 performances, captures only a tiny handful of the many distinguished players who’ve passed through the Newport grounds, but it’s still plenty impressive: Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, and Dinah Washington are just a few of the giants on this year’s bill. Since enshrined in the United States National Film Registry, it’s reaped critical praise from an array of critics that includes the A.V. Club’s Keith Phipps, who wrote, “Jazz bounds from strength to strength, stylishly immortalizing transcendently beautiful music on a glorious day, suggesting in the process that film might have no higher purpose.”

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Kansas City (1996) 62%

One of director Robert Altman’s less acclaimed (and less often seen) films, 1996’s Kansas City uses the sights and sounds of the city’s 1930s jazz scene as the backdrop for an admittedly rather ordinary crime thriller. Yet while it may not rank among Altman’s finest, there are definitely pleasures to be had while watching the typically solid cast (including Harry Belafonte, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Steve Buscemi) and taking in the soundtrack, which found contemporary jazz artists recreating classic tracks under the guidance of famed producer Hal Wilner. “Altman loves to explode movie genres,” wrote Newsweek’s Jack Kroll, “and his script, co-written with Frank Barhydt, fuses the classic ’30s screwball comedy and crime film.”

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Keep On Keepin' On (2014) 98%

Trumpeter Clark Terry was such an influential and prolific player that it would have been easy to put together a biopic looking at nothing but his music — and it’s very much to director Alan Hicks’ credit that his movie, 2014’s Keep On Keepin’ On, offers a much more personal overview of what made Terry so special. Instead of surveying his legacy along established narrative lines, Hicks focuses on the beautiful friendship between Terry and Justin Kauflin, a much younger pianist he took under his wing and spent countless hours mentoring. While offering ample demonstration of Terry’s professional legacy, Keepin’ also emphatically underscores what he brought to this life on a personal level, and serves as a graceful, quiet reminder of the power of a simple human connection. “One need not be a jazz aficionado to enjoy this film,” wrote David Lewis for the San Francisco Chronicle. “All that’s required is a smile.”

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Lady Sings the Blues (1972) 69%

It would be all but impossible to satisfactorily summarize a life as large as Billie Holiday’s, no matter how big the screen — but 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues gets most of the way there, and Holiday herself couldn’t have asked for a better cast than the one assembled by director Sidney J. Furie. Diana Ross ran with the role of a lifetime as the legendary singer, earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination and holding her own against an ensemble supporting cast that included Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, all while pulling double duty on a bestselling soundtrack that helped reintroduce Holiday’s classic songs through Ross’ interpretations. “Furie,” wrote the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr, “never again seemed so adept or comfortable with genre material: this show-biz bio hits all of the high points of the formula with some measure of precision.”

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Mo' Better Blues (1990) 71%

Spike Lee followed the triumph of 1989’s Do the Right Thing with Mo’ Better Blues, a period jazz musical drama that could hardly have felt like more of a hard left turn during hip-hop’s commercial ascension. Trends aside, Lee — aided by a strong cast that included Denzel Washington as a talented trumpet player and Wesley Snipes as his showboating saxophonist — used the music and the conflicts of a bygone era to impart a handful of immutable truths about art, commerce, and the pursuit of a dream. Calling it “full of wonderful music, grand visuals, and melodramatic plot twists,” TV Guide wrote, “the movie is laced with very funny moments, as well as interesting insights into the world of jazz and the plight of the dedicated musician.”

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'Round Midnight (1986) 100%

Real-life jazz giant Dexter Gordon earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work in this 1986 drama, which looks at the budding friendship between a legendary sax player and a fan who meet in Paris during the ’50s. Director Bertrand Tavernier’s attention to detail and obvious fondness for the jazz world are evident in every frame of ‘Round Midnight, which takes a handful of tropes associated with the music of the era — including the substance abuse that plagued too many of its performers — and weaves a timeless tale that’s enjoyed decades of critical acclaim. The end result, as Paul Attanasio wrote for the Washington Post, is “A lovingly gentle yet vibrant tribute to jazz, friendship and film itself, made by a director of consummate taste and precise imagination.”

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Sweet and Lowdown (1999) 77%

Woody Allen’s love of jazz has informed his life’s work in any number of ways, but if you’re looking for the movie that most directly reflects his fondness for the music, it can’t hurt to start with Sweet and Lowdown. Starring Sean Penn as a fictional ’30s jazz guitarist who sees himself as a peer of Django Reinhardt’s, it steeps Allen’s usual techniques in a potent brew of strong acting, fine period detail, and — of course — a smartly crafted soundtrack. Penn and Samantha Morton both earned Oscar nominations for their work, and while it wasn’t one of Allen’s bigger hits, it was greeted with applause by the majority of critics, including the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who deemed it “one very tuneful labor of love.”

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Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (Straight, No Chaser ) (1988) 83%

Noted jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood used his clout to get this documentary about the genius pianist and composer to the big screen after director Charlotte Zwerin fashioned it from a trove of previously unreleased Monk footage. The result is one of the most clear-eyed and comprehensive jazz biopics of the ’80s — or any other decade, for that matter — as well as a terrific primer for anyone unfamiliar with Thelonious Monk’s contributions to American music. Stephen Holden for the New York Times observed, “The Monk music that courses through the film is extraordinary in its range of feeling.”

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Whiplash (2014) 94%

While a number of jazz purists (and musicians in general) have taken extreme issue with the way Whiplash portrays certain sectors of the musical community — not to mention what it seems to suggest regarding an artist’s sacrifices on his journey to greatness — there’s no denying that it’s one of the few recent films to make any kind of attempt to get inside the music. It’s also eminently well-acted, as evidenced by the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that J.K. Simmons took home for his volcanic turn as borderline psychotic music instructor Terence Fletcher — and of course, it’s got a solid soundtrack to boot. As Moira MacDonald wrote for the Seattle Times, “The film works, often wonderfully, as a remarkable visualization of jazz music — you feel it and breathe it, just like the musicians — and as a showcase for the two actors at its center.”

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