Posted on Friday, June 1st, 2012 by Jordan Hoffman
A little over a year ago I was in London. I went to the legendary jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. At one point during a jam session a young Russian man in a thick coat and scarf (despite the warm weather) ran up on stage, blew his alto like it was nobody’s business, then promptly disappeared despite calls for more. I knew that if I had a crew with me and access to that man’s life I’d have the winner at next year’s Sundance.
There’s something wonderfully cinematic about a musician’s life. If they are any good, they are usually half in our world and half in their own. Yet they are fluent in another language. Plus, unless they are playing the ukelele, they look really cool.
Here are eight of my favorite movies about musicians that aren’t as well-known as they should be. Once isn’t on the list. I’m assuming you saw that already. But if you saw the headline and were hoping to see a clip to that masterpiece, here’s the “When Your Mind’s Made Up” recording scene, which ranks alongside the final 45 minutes of Avengers as the most exhilarating piece of cinema from the last ten years.
‘Round Midnight (1986); Bertrand Tavernier, director.
There’s nothing more tragically romantic than the jazz artists of the 1950s. And this is a love poem to those tortured souls.
Originally intended as an adaptation of French diarist Francis Paudras’ portrait of pianist Bud Powell, ‘Round Midnight took on a life of its own when director Bertrand Tavernier cast saxaphonist Dexter Gordon as the lead actor. While Gordon avoided the rough addiction and mental health issues of the legendary pianist, he was an expatriate in Paris for fifteen years and knew Powell, as well as Lester Young, whose biography soon became fused with the character he portrayed.
This film is oozing legit mood, and if just one person is inspired to see it and make further in roads into mid-century jazz because of it, I’ll have done my duty this week.
Hey, the entire film is on YouTube.
Bandwagon (1996); John Schultz, director.
The independent film explosion of the early 1990s worked in tandem with the independent music scene. By 1996 it was already commodified and co-opted, man, but a good narrative film that weaved the two had yet to coalesced. Singles doesn’t count.
Bandwagon isn’t perfect (if I recall correctly, the music was kinda subpar) but it wins lots of point for spirit. Plus anything with Kevin Corrigan in it is worth seeing. The moment when the four core members of the band rehearse in the garage and line up as a perfect album cover through the windows is a champion bit of filmmaking. (The director later went on to make Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer. Hey, work is work.)
Here’s another one in full on YouTube.
Lush Life (1993); Michael Elias, director.
I know that trailer looks cheesy as all hell, but I swear to you that this is a good film. What it does so well is chronicle the day-in and day-out of a working musician, hustling gigs. One night you are working at a high class embassy function, the next night a tiny stage in a dive bar, then subbing in a Broadway orchestra pit, or in a recording studio for a TV commercial. It’s a difficult life, but the people who are called to it form a bond – almost a military-like camaraderie.
Definitely check this one out for those reasons, plus to see Jeff Goldblum with flowing ’90s hair.
One-Trick Pony (1980); Robert M. Young, director.
Written and starring Paul Simon, this is his cri de couer against the music industry, as seen by a version of himself without the cushion of a string of hits under his belt.
Is there room in the modern world for a humble singer-songwriter who just wants to play heartfelt music and have an uncomplicated love life? Probably, but that doesn’t make for interesting cinema. Keep your eyes peeled for a slew of cameos, including Lou Reed, Harry Shearer, Daniel Stern, Sam & Dave, the Lovin’ Spoonful and more.
BONUS! It was hard not to think of One-Trick Pony at 2011’s SXSW Film Festival when watching Surrogate Valentine. It, too, is written by and stars a singer-songwriter, this time a young chap named Goh Nakamura. There are some road trip/buddy movie hijinks in Surrogate Valentine but it also is a terrific look at the life and loves of an acoustic musician.