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7 Of The Best Jazz Films Ever Made

With Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead hitting DVD this month, we take a look at some of cinema's best jazz movies.






Given that the first ever feature length film with synchronized sound, The Jazz Singer, was a film about Jazz, it’s no surprise that Hollywood has such a rich history within the genre. The latest addition to the jazz film category, Miles Ahead, is a standout. 

Available on digital platforms on 15th August and on Blu-ray and DVD from 22nd August, 2016, Miles Ahead is a bio-pic that offers a deeply moving view into the darker periods that plagued the musical genius Miles Davis’ tumultuous career. As Miles Davis and Dave Braden, a Rolling Stones journalist who foregoes his own reporting agenda to help the unstable Davis save a precious tape of original music from greedy music executives, Don Cheadle (Captain America: Civil War, Ocean’s Thirteen) and Ewan McGregor (August: Osage County, Trainspotting 2) deliver career defining performances. To celebrate the release of this poignant account of one of the greatest Jazz musicians in history, here’s a look back at some of the best Jazz films to grace the silver screen over the years.



Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle’s directorial debut, and a pet project in development for over 10 years, Miles Ahead takes on the challenging perspective of the darkest period of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis’ career. It’s 1979 and the prolific musician has not performed publicly in six years, let alone picked up a trumpet in three. Secluded from the world in a wrecked Upper West Side apartment, Davis’ biggest obstacle is himself. He is fighting severe drug addiction and depression, and trying to protect the last piece of music that belongs to only him. Meanwhile, the outside world has caught wind of the possibility that the mercurial music genius still holds on to one tape of original music. An eager Rolling Stone reporter, Dave Braden, decides to befriend Davis with the hidden agenda to get the inside scoop on the mysterious tape. In a thrilling turn, Braden’s loyalty to music and the respected musician overcomes his ambitions and he finds himself helping Davis save his music from unappreciative music execs eager to get their hands on new material at any cost.



The Jazz Singer

Categorized as one of the best American films of all time by the American Film Institute in 1998, Warner Brothers and Alan Crosland’s 1927 The Jazz Singer is a piece of cinematic history. With its introduction of synchronized sound to a moving picture, The Jazz Singer is largely responsible for the turning point in cinema from silent films to “the talkies,” as they called pictures with synchronised sound in the '20s and '30s. Starring Al Jolson as Jackie Rabinowitz, or as he is later called, Jack Robin, The Jazz Singer tells the story of the son of a Jewish Cantor, who prefers singing Jazz to the music of the synagogue. Disowned by his father, the young musician finds success as a Jazz performer. The father and son are reconciled when Jack forgoes the biggest performance of his career to sing the sacred Kol Nidre at his father’s synagogue on Yom Kippur when the old man is dying. In the final scene we see Jack performing at one of the biggest theatres in New York. He is finally living his dream. 



Stormy Weather

Starring respected dancer Bill “Bo jangles” Robinson, and the beautifully talented singer Lena Horne, Stormy Weather is a 1943 Jazz Musical that made its mark on history as one of the first mainstream Hollywood musical productions to cast African American performers in leading roles. The story of a soldier that returns home from World War I with ambitions to become a dancer, the charming 77 minute film features 20 impressive musical numbers from some of the top music and dance performers of the time including Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, The Nicholas Brothers, and Ada Brown. In 2001, the film was selected for the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress for its significant relevance to the field of cultural history. 



Lady Sings the Blues

Named for Billie Holiday’s 1965 album and single “Lady Sings the Blues,” and the autobiography by the acclaimed singer the same year, Lady Sings the Blues is 1972 bio-pic based on the mesmerizing singer’s dramatic life and career. The moving film was legendary vocalist Diana Ross’s first foray into acting, yet her portrayal of Holiday’s turbulent ascent to fame won the actress both Academy Award and Golden Globe award nominations for best actress. The film itself was nominated for five academy awards, and the soundtrack sold over 2 million copies, making it the fourth best-selling R&B album and fifth best-selling Pop album of 1973.



The Fabulous Baker Boys

A combination of sibling loyalty, a love story, and the classic predicament of every great artist: creative freedom vs. making a buck; all underscored by the beautiful melodies of classic jazz, The Fabulous Baker Boys is every bit as fabulous as the title would suggest. Jeff (The Giver, True Grit) and Beau Bridges (The Descendants, Evel Knievel) star as Jack and Frank Baker, a jazz duo performing gimmicky jazz to sustain a living.  Frank acts as the duo’s manager, while playboy Jack, the real talent of the family, struggles to find his way between a desire to play real experimental jazz, and a life of endless partying and one night stands. When an eccentric but strikingly talented singer with a chequered past, Susie Diamond, played by Michelle Pfeiffer (What Lies Beneath, Hairspray), joins the band, she forces the brothers to re-evaluate their partnership.  When Jack and Susie get involved romantically, the band is ruined. However, Jack is finally inspired to spread his wings and pursue the solo career for which is he is destined.



Whiplash

Winner of three Academy Awards, with nominations for two more including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, the 2014 drama Whiplash was initially planned for only domestic release in limited theatres across the U.S. and Canada. After being selected as one of the top U.S. dramatic films at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in 2014, the indie film with a 3.3 million dollar budget expanded to over 500 theatres; grossing an estimated 49 million dollars over its 6 month run in theatres. Starring Miles Teller (Project X, Spectacular Now), and  JK Simmons (Spiderman Trilogy, The Closer), Whiplash follows the first year of talented Jazz musician, Andrew Niemen (Teller), who has been accepted to a prestigious New York City Jazz school. Niemen is accepted to the upper level band where he suffers under the derision of an abusively rigorous conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Niemen eventually triumphs over Fletcher in the film’s memorable last scene when the talented drummer leads the entire band in a defiant performance of “Caravan.”  The defeated conductor has no choice but to follow along with his band.



Round Midnight

Bertrand Tavernier's 1986 drama is one of the greatest expressions of the redemptive power of music ever put on screen. Saxophonist Dexter Gordon plays Dale Turner, a one time American Jazz great now making ends meet by performing at a Parisian club while struggling with alcoholism. Turner is befriended by a fan, Francis (Francois Cluzet), who makes personal sacrifices to help his hero return to his former glories. Despite his inexperience on screen, Gordon is magnetic, playing a character loosely based on real life Jazz musicians Lester Young (saxophone) and Bud Powell (piano). The movie also features appearances by a host of jazz legends, including pianist Herbie Hancock, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and guitarist John McLaughlin, making it a must see for Jazz buffs. Watch out for an appearance by director Martin Scorsese as a record producer also.



MILES AHEAD
ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS ON 15TH AUGUST
BLU-RAY AND DVD FROM 22ND AUGUST, 2016
COURTESY OF ICON FILM DISTRIBUTION


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