Jazz On Film

The marriage of music and film is a long and mostly harmonious one. Even back when films had no sound, live musicians provided musical accompaniment for the images. Jazz and 'talkies' came into their own right around the same time, and it's hard to think of the classic Hollywood of the '40s and '50s within your daydream being complemented by a jazz soundtrack. Jazz On Film at ACMI explores the relationship between these two art forms – how they mix and mingle, and how the emphasis shifts between the two. The selections for the fourth annual program are works related to two very different but both very jazz-influenced artists: composer Terence Blanchard and director Woody Allen. Beginning on Sunday June 3 and running until Saturday June 9, the program includes three films scored by Blanchard (9/11 fallout film 25th Hour; Chess Records biopic Cadillac Records and serial killer profile Summer Of Sam) and a pair of Woody Allen classics (the gypsy jazz love letter Sweet And Lowdown, and the gangster farce Bullets Over Broadway). Screening alongside the season is the Australian premiere of Woody Allen: A Documentary. Blanchard himself will participate in a Q&A related to Cadillac Records.

"The idea behind this year's Jazz On Film program, the seed of it, was instigated by the fact that Terence Blanchard is coming down for the Melbourne Jazz Festival," ACMI film programmer Spiro Economopoulos says. "Terence Blanchard has worked with a lot of people, particularly Spike Lee, and we were really keen to look at some of his work." At the same time, Woody Allen: A Documentary surfaced. "We thought it would be great to look at two different artists working in different fields of the film world and how they've incorporated jazz into their own work." Allen was an obvious choice for the way he has let jazz influence his work, sometimes subtly such as the threads of music running through Radio Days, and sometimes explicitly, such as in the case of Sweet And Lowdown, which tells the story of a gypsy jazz guitarists forever living in the shadow of genre great Django Reinhardt. In fact, there's actually a documentary – Wild Man Blues – about Allen's love of jazz, and it almost made it to the Jazz On Film programme, but at the end of the day the decision was made to focus on films that use jazz in a unique or intrinsic way. "Even something like Bullets Over Broadway, it's not a direct link but it's more about the jazz era, that time."


Sweet And Lowdown (1999) is certainly not one of Allen's best-known films, yet within the context of Jazz On Film it's certainly the most blatant. "It's a great movie, and Sean Penn is so good in it. It's such a melancholy film, so bittersweet. Allen doesn't usually deal directly with the subject of jazz, and it was interesting to see him depict a jazz artist. And it works really well. Jazz seems to exist in a different time for Woody Allen. It's very much related to a particular timeframe: jazz of the '20s, '30s and '40s. I don't think his films ever have contemporary avant garde jazz stuff!" So who would Economopoulos like to see a biopic made about? "Apparently there's a Miles Davis movie being made," he says. "I'm actually surprised that Miles Davis hasn't had a film made about him before this! I love Kind Of Blue. A friend of mine bought it for me for my birthday on vinyl a few years ago. I knew some of the tracks before that, but it's such a wonderful, great album. I really, really love it."


So what is it about jazz that makes it so timeless? There are jazz recordings from the '40s that don't sound as dated as music from even the '90s. "I think as a genre it's one that constantly evolves," Economopoulos says. "It's got such range. It's avant garde, it's traditional, its roots are really diverse and the strands that have come into it are really potent – blues, big band – and Terence Blanchard's really interesting for that because I think his film scores really reflect that. The way he did something like Summer Of Sam, for example, it's got a real edge to it and it's very dynamic, and then you've got something like 25th Hourwhich is really elegiac and sombre, and it really reflects the moods of it. I think Woody Allen is more traditional in the way he uses jazz."


For those looking for a little context before they check out Jazz On Film, Economopoulos recommends Ken Burns' Jazzdocumentary. "I just thought it was so great. It really got me more interested in jazz in a big way, made me want to discover more of how it works, looking to different artists… it was really wonderful. And I think what I liked about it a lot was looking at the heritage of it."



JAZZ ON FILM runs from Sunday June 3 - Saturday June 9 2012 at ACMI. Head to acmi.net.au for full schedule and ticketing details