Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1994 some enterprising jazz enthusiasts found the perfect way to make a movie about the previous generation of jazz greats. In 1958, a famous photograph had been taken on the steps of a Harlem brownstone on 124th and Madison Avenue in New York City. Practically every known living jazz great at that time was in New York, and by some miracle they all showed up for the mass portrait. Jean Bach's documentary is about the making of the photograph, but it's also about the memories of the photo shoot's surviving participants - a personalized, overlapping, 40-voice memoir.
Even for people who have never heard of the famous photo the docu is a treat. Confirmed jazz fans will be floored by the all-inclusive roster of stars and even non-jazz aficionados will recognize a couple of dozen top names: Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Gene Krupa, Coleman Hawkins -- the list could go on five times that length.
A big part of the appeal of A Great Day in Harlem is that it doesn't tell the full story of anybody's life or attempt an analysis of the appeal of jazz from an outside perspective. It's only concerned with a particular point in time when fifty-seven notable personalities congregated together just to celebrate the existence of their chosen art. The extras on Home Vision's 2-disc special edition add more revelations to an already illuminating documentary.
The disarmingly simple docu works in several ways. The only one that conforms to the talking-head format is the telling of how the picture came to be. Already an established art director at Seventeen magazine, Art Kane wanted to switch to photography. The new art director at Esquire, film-director-to-be Robert Benton, was compiling an issue devoted to jazz and gave Kane's all-star round-up photo idea a chance. On an August morning every notable musician invited showed up, much to Kane's delight. It was his first gig as a camera pro, and we hear about the fumbled shoot from both Benton and Kane's camera assistant, who describes how he at first loaded Kane's film magazines backwards.
The majority of the video documentary consists of camera coverage of jazz greats looking at the famous photo that resulted. Each musician becomes personally involved in relating the story of the day, yielding memories that wouldn't have surfaced in a normal Q&A interview session. Getting all those gentlemen together in 1958 was a small miracle in itself, and making them form up into a useable pose on the brownstone steps was even harder ... the original "herding cats" problem. As each individual artist regards the picture in turn, they remember where they were in their careers and the contemporaries they admired. Then they gossip about each other's personality quirks, or the fact that one musician was late because he took too long to choose what suit to wear.
Dozens of other photos were taken of the set-up on the Harlem steps as the picture was coming together, some by Kane and others by neighborhood photographers who stumbled upon the sight and recognized a great picture opportunity. Their images help tell the story of why Count Basie is sitting down instead of standing: He got tired and amused himself by talking to the row of boys sitting on the curb next to him. The filmmakers tracked down that kid, now 55 years old, and he accounts for his cocky attitude in the photos by claiming that he had just bested the boy next to him in a fight.
Finally, the filmmakers secured home movies taken of the scene by Mona and Milt Hinton. In almost perfect condition, the color footage shows the participants engaging in dozens of separate conversations while Art Kane and his helpers are trying to get their attention. The movies give us a better look at the women in the group, who turn out to be singers and songwriters, like Marian McPartland.
The end result is a humanizing set of images that puts smiling faces on the names we've seen on the covers of countless jazz records. Whenever possible, A Great Day in Harlem helps familiarize us with less well-known personalities by cutting away to older photos and an occasional film or video clip. A number of music selections peek through, but the larger aim of the show is to celebrate the men themselves. The last gentleman looks up from a scrapbook of photos and tells the camera, "Well, I better get home to the wife!" Reminiscing over old pictures from the past can be an absorbing experience.
Image and Home Vision Entertainment's 2-Disc Special Edition of A Great Day in Harlem is a fine transfer of the hour-long video production. The interviews, clips, and photos all look fine. Particular credit needs to be given to whoever devised the excellent camera moves on the key historic photograph.
The DVD comes with a wealth of extras, most of them derived from material left over in the Avid outs bin. On disc one, producer/director Jean Bach appears on camera to explain how her documentary came about. Art Kane goes deeper into his background and Jean talks about his final years. Bill Charlap and Kenny Washington, "the next generation" share a 14-topic discussion of the jazz greats. Jean Bach surveys a wide selection of 'copycat' photos inspired by the Harlem original.
Disc two has a pair of lengthy extras. Explore the Photo steps through the picture person by person to access short reminiscences by the artist-witnesses, accompanied by more rare photos. Musicians A to Z is another compilation of on-camera testimony arranged in short bites. When some on-camera speakers are weak of voice, they're aided by subtitles. A Great Day in Harlem is a fine documentary, and the extra material on this 2-disc set adds up to an oral history of a special corner of American culture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Great Day in Harlem rates:
Supplements: Interview extras: the producer on the making of the film and Art Kane, and encyclopedic reminiscences about the jazz greats in the photo.
Packaging: Unknown, reviewed from check discs
Reviewed: February 12, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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