Jazz at the Movies

Jazz and the motion picture are America’s greatest cultural gifts to the world. Since the invention of the talking picture, in the late 1920s, they have shown a fascination for each other. Indeed, the very first “talkie” was The Jazz Singer, though it had little to do with jazz as we know it.

To coincide with this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival, CFS has decided to put on four interesting jazz-related films in a special one-day event we are calling Jazz at the Movies. It will take place at the Playhouse in Bath Road, which was once the film society’s home, and it will be open to the general public.

The event takes place on Saturday 5 May. The first film, starting at 11:30, is Let’s Get Lost. This is a powerful documentary portrait of the trumpeter and singer Chet Baker from 1988. Baker made a name for himself as one of the leaders of West Coast ‘cool’ jazz, a melodic and emotionally affecting strain of the music that stood in sharp contrast to New York’s fierce bebop and hard bop. Tragically, he turned to heroin quite early in his career, and faced constant run-ins with the law. He also suffered an injury that damaged his embouchure and this meant he had to relearn the instrument. Let’s Get Lost was a labour of love for director Bruce Weber, better known as a fashion photographer, who spent six months on the road with Baker charting his sad decline.

Our second film, Lift To the Scaffold (1958), starts at 15:00. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is a fascinating noir-ish thriller by Louis Malle, released just before the French New Wave and showing some interesting parallels with Godard’s Breathless. It stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet. A man plans to kill his lover’s husband, who also happens to be his boss. The film is important in jazz terms because it has a unique improvised score by Miles Davis and a European band. Malle, who was only 24, intercepted Miles at the airport. He took him into the studio and let him improvise from dawn to dusk while showing him the film. The soundtrack was completed in one session. It is notable as one of the stepping stones towards Miles’s modal style of the late 1950s.

At 17:30 we show the jubilant 1943 musical Stormy Weather. Broadly inspired by the life of the tap-dancer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who plays a version of himself, this is a wonderful glimpse of African American entertainment at its pre-war peak. It includes brilliant performances by the singer Lena Horne, pianist Fats Waller and the bandleader Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Orchestra. It also includes brief passages that are not in accordance with modern racial sensitivities, so be warned.

The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), which we are showing at 20:15, is Anthony Minghella’s gripping version of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller. It stars Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, a psychopathic con-man who insinuates himself into the lives of Dickie and Marge, a pair of wealthy American idlers on the Italian Riviera. In her novel, Highsmith makes Dickie a painter. In the film, he becomes a jazz musician, and Ripley, a classical pianist, has to feign a love of Dickie’s music, even accompanying him to a jazz club and joining in. The club band in the film includes British trumpeter and bandleader Guy Barker, who is scheduled to perform at this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival on the evening before we show the film.

Tickets are available from the Playhouse box office in person or online (www.cheltplayhouse.org.uk). They cost £7 for one film, £12 for two, £15 for three and £20 for all four. There is a substantial discount for Cheltenham Film Society members but it is only available if you buy your tickets in person on film nights. If you buy through the Playhouse the discount doesn’t apply. Sorry!

We hope you will support this experiment and that you enjoy the films.