The films that brought the best jazz music to life
Soundtracks like John Coltrane’s in ‘Le Chat Dans le Sac’ pay tribute to the genre’s great instrumentalists.
John Coltrane – a giant of the jazz world – wrote and recorded in 1964 a soundtrack for the French-Canadian movie Le Chat Dans le Sac (The Cat in the Bag), backed by his quartet of Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums and McCoy Tyner on piano. The drama, directed by Gilles Groulx, is viewed by critics as an important moment in Canadian cinema.
Coltrane and his band spent three hours in the studio and contributed three pieces of music to the film, but the sessions then sat in an archive until they were released as an album, Blue World, in August 2019.
The album has garnered favourable reviews – the Irish Times called it: “a gift to the world”. Le Chat won the Grand Prix at the Montreal International Film Festival that year and remains a cult classic. But where does it fit into the pantheon of great jazz soundtracks?
A great many jazz giants, from Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins to Ornette Coleman and Herbie Hancock, have scored films and Coltrane’s contemporary Miles Davis also produced two soundtracks. But Coltrane only left us with Le Chat. Here are five of my particular favourite soundtracks.
Mo Better Blues (Spike Lee, 1990)
Lee’s film is a moving and often hilarious tribute to the jazz greats. It’s helped along by a star-studded cast of Lee regulars including Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L Jackson, John Turturro and Joie Lee.
The film centres on Lee’s deliciously ironically named music promoter, Giant, as he manages his best friend’s jazz band. Some scenes are based on the life of Charlie Parker, some are from the life of Chet Baker. Needless to say, there is plenty of tragedy in those two lives.
Snipes’s saxophonist, Shadow, and Washington’s trumpet player, Bleek, enter into a power struggle for leadership that bleeds into their private lives and loves, while Giant has a problem with gambling that leads to Bleek getting beaten up by mobsters who leave him with an injury to his mouth which prevents him from playing the trumpet.
The film’s score was written by Lee’s father, Bill Lee. Bill scored Spike’s first four movies before the two had a falling-out following a long-running feud after his father remarried. The soundtrack was composed and performed by the inimitable Branford Marsalis Quintet and renowned trumpeter Terence Blanchard.
Lift to the Scaffold (Louis Malle, 1958)
Malle’s debut feature is a film with an evocative and powerfully sombre mood – a cool and passionate film about love, desire, betrayal, murder and mistaken identity with dire consequences. The movie, with its depictions of the modern world and younger lovers grappling with older generations, asks its audience to surrender to its depictions of the new France – of motorways and modern buildings, motels, American cars and sharp suits.
The mood created by the stunning Miles Davis soundtrack proved to be artistically inspired in the open-ended solos which lend themselves perfectly to the psychological dimensions of the characters of this wandering meditation of a film. Malle’s own obvious adoration for the soundtrack sums up its triumph when he points out that: “I strongly believe that without Miles Davis’ score the film would not have had the critical and public response that it had.”
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)
Whiplash is a bold, brutal and beautiful portrayal of the lengths to which we go to remain dedicated to our dreams. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a teenage jazz drummer learning his chops under the abusive tutelage of psychopathic bandleader Fletcher (brilliantly portrayed by JK Simmons).
In an interview with review site The Dissolve, Chazelle said the movie was loosely based on his own experiences at the hands of a high school music teacher. While Teller’s portrayal of Andrew is moving and endearing, Simmons’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Fletcher is beyond human, a hurricane of hatred and an obscene joy to watch.
The soundtrack is predictably drum heavy. The score’s standout piece is “Upswingin’” by the film’s composer Justin Hurwitz but the performance of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” crowns the entire film.
Bird (Clint Eastwood, 1988)
Bird is a biopic about jazz legend Charlie Parker. Forest Whitaker is a tour de force as the troubled alto saxophonist and was recognised with a best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988. Eastwood and Whitaker won best director and actor respectively at the Golden Globes the same year, while the movie won an Oscar for best sound, something that means a great deal for any jazz enthusiast.
The film manages to encapsulate a great deal of the atmosphere of the 1950s bebop movement. As well as a biopic about Parker, the film evokes that wonderful period of jazz invention. The story of Parker’s painfully short life is tragic and sympathetically told with just as wandering a narrative as any great Charlie Parker solo, jumping freely between past and present.
Born to Be Blue (Robert Budreau, 2015)
Dealing with the fraught and uneven life of Chet Baker, and with an uncannily convincing portrayal by Ethan Hawke, the film plays quite frivolously with fact and fiction – taking fewer notes from the first column than the latter.
The narrative involves Baker being cast to play himself in a movie about his early life as a jazz musician dealing with heroin addiction. Baker’s career goes off the rails in the mid-1960s when he is badly beaten by drug dealers, losing his front teeth and ruining his embouchure (mouth shape). The film tracks his efforts to learn to play again. It’s beautifully shot and Hawke’s performance is well worth tuning in for.
Much of European cinema from the late 1950s and 1960s relies heavily on the use of powerful and memorable jazz soundtracks – from the French New Wave through the British New Wave of the early 1960s to New Italian Cinema. But for true jazz aficionados, the above five films are required viewing.
Martin Hall is a senior lecturer at York St John University. This article first appeared on The Conversation.