Movie of the Week: Jazz on A Summer’s Day (1959)

Bert Stern directs Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and Mahalia Jackson in this concert movie capturing the performances, audiences and atmosphere of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

A heavenly tapestry of cool music, unaware spectators captured in the wild and slightly too obviously staged summer partying. This film celebrates the heat and bonhomie of watching live music and the freedom which summer weekends gift us all. The footage is shown without commentary or narration… the mood is the context. We get a rich overview of jazz in all its variations; chatty superstar Louis Armstrong, a showstopper by Dinah Washington, the intense marathon drumming of Chico Hamilton, this beautiful moment. You can feel the practice, concentration, daring, sweat and pleasure in the inspirational performances. Yet, as if this wasn’t enough, it is the candid shots of the crowds that truly make Jazz On a Summer’s Day THE perfect concert film. There’s plenty of footage of toetapping, finger clicking, awe and spontaneous dancing. Whether toddlers or people born in the 1800’s there are faces overcome with joy at what is happening on stage. There’s also scowling, napping and plenty of snacking. It is an honest portrait of who showed up for the event. In the daytime the blacks and whites feel separated, by night those unofficial lines of segregation (no doubt psychological rather than officially mandated) begin to blur. This film is a marvel, a magical time capsule… it will thrill jazz fans and time travellers alike.


My Top 10 Movies With Jazz Soundtracks

Knock Down the House (2019)

Rachel Lear’s directs Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin in this documentary about four ordinary American women who challenge their traditional political candidates for Congress.

Lovely to see a doc about democracy that has a positive message. Ocasio-Cortez in particular comes across fantastically, smart and sweet, human and fierce. Is she a portent of a new kind of grassroots and disentangled from special interests party politics? Time will tell,


The Angel’s Share (2012)

Ken Loach directs Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw and Roger Allam in this gritty comedy about four Glaswegian parolees who get into single malt whisky via their community service supervisor… a heist ensues.

Far gentler than nearly all of Loach’s dramas – this is a pleasant, if not earth moving watch. There are still spikes of grim poverty; the lead is trying to escape a generational cycle of revenge violence, he struggles to face up to his own criminally aggressive past. In the main though this is more akin to a grubbier Ealing Comedy or a late 90s lottery funded Brit Flick like Purely Belter.


My Top 10 Scottish Movies

Force Majeure (2014)

Ruben Östlund directs Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli and Kristofer Hivju in this arthouse drama about a father who has to look his family in the eye after he abandons them to an oncoming avalanche on a ski holiday.

Nicely shot and proficiently acted, with a playful take on both masculinity and isolation. But could easily lose half an hour. Very draggy.


Toy Story 2 (1999)

John Lasseter directs Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Joan Cusack in this sequel to Toy Story, where Woody falls into the hands of an unscrupulous toy collector and learns of his secret origins.

Toy Story 2 was intended as a direct-to-video cash-in. Then someone accidentally deleted a lot of the animation code and they got a chance to spruce it up to a cinematic feature. It is almost on a par with the perfect first film and the emotionally devastating third. The 1990s Computer Generated Imagery is starting show its creakiness, those humans in the airport are terrifying polygon automatons. Maybe that’s the point. The toys are truer than humanity? Jessie’s song slows things down but… boy oh boy… does it get you in the feels. And the epic grand finale lacks the zip of the moving van chase nor the gut blow of the trash compactor. But you get more Rex. That’s all I want in life really. More paranoid dinosaur.


Late Night (2019)

Nisha Ganatra directs Mindy Kaling, Emma Thompson and Hugh Dancy in this comedy where an Asian female “diversity hire” joins the all white, all male writing room for a late night talk show fronted by a frosty and complacent comedian.

Pleasant enough but the comedy is too light and all but disappears after the midway mark. After that we are in firm drama territory but again the plot mechanics are so predictable so as to be perfunctory. Feels like something inoffensively forgotten from the 1980s. Yet sometimes you just want it that easy and digestible.


The White Ribbon (2009)

Michael Haneke directs Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur and Leonie Benesch in this period arthouse drama where a school teacher remembers a series of minor tragedies that mysteriously plagued a small town in the build up to World War One.

Like Childhood of the Leader we are watching fascism, the Nazi mindset, taking root in a generation. The drama never explicitly spells this out, but the shy romance and minor crimes power a slow yet meditative ensemble drama that achingly alludes to broader, bigger insidious ideas. Beautiful monochrome photography by Christian Berger too.


Thelma (2017)

Joachim Trier directs Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins and Henrik Rafaelsen in this Norwegian supernatural thriller where a closeted Christian girl with psychokinetic powers goes to college and discovers drink, girls and loneliness.

A classy Carrie. Moves at a stately pace, never really tips into full horror. We get an uncertain lesbian romance (Is Thelma mind controlling the wavering affections of her love?) and lots of shots of people crossing the campus square like ants. Well produced, just very slight.


Booksmart (2019)

Olivia Wilde directs Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever and Billie Lourd in this teen comedy where two bookworms decide to party hard the night before graduation.

Sold as a Femme Fresh superior Superbad and with a cast I had enjoyed in lots of other things I went into Booksmart with high hopes. Yet the first hour didn’t really click. I chuckled and smiled, appreciated the energy of the leads, loved it whenever Billie Lourd or Skyler Gisondo gatecrashed a scene. They were brilliant in Scream Queens and Santa Clarita Diet respectively, they capitalise and evolve that goodwill here. But I hadn’t laughed hard like Superbad had got me a decade a go. There the bad behaviour felt organically moronic, didn’t have the fun dampening spectre of identity politics floating around every line, action and pratfall as this does. Comedy kinda has to fake spontaneity and that’s very hard to do if you know every creative decision has noticeably passed through the filters of “Is this feminist?” and “Is this positive?”. Just as I was about to write Booksmart off as a comedy, it suddenly became its own thing… at the final party the emphasis on awkward gags, nerdy cool and epic pratfalls gave way to something a bit more emotionally relevant, cinematically true. The final party shifts gear into drama and romance, not only do these elements resonate but within the alienation and self-realisation the lower gag rate yields better results. In the final stretch you laugh at every joke attempted rather watch a film tie itself into knots about whether it is woke enough. So once we are burning leather and racing to graduation we are in, there in the driving seat with our protagonists, loving them like we always wanted to, looking forward to their closure as much as we do the spirited support players. Booksmart turns it around, finishing neck and neck with its inspiration Superbad. The thumping soundtrack and fluid visual sensibility doesn’t hurt.


Sartana’s Here… Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin (1970)

Guiliano Carnimeo directs George Hilton, Charles Southwood and Erika Blanc in this spaghetti western where Sartana and a dandy circle a gold shipment everyone wants a piece of.

Regular Sartana actor Gianni Garko is replaced by a bland nobody. Erika Blanc does noticeable work as the town’s flame haired Madame in the wings. Charles Southwood’s parasol sporting white hat is a strange enough presence in the action legs but he can’t carry the character off in close-up. An overly complicated plot loses the attention, Franco de Masi’s rhythmic guitar score does all the heavy lifting in terms of excitement. Wearying otherwise.