It would be easier to grouse about the paucity of great-or good or tolerable or watchable-jazz-themed feature films if Hollywood had done any better by classical music or rock. It hasn’t. Most American musicals, from The Jazz Singer and The Broadway Melody to Moulin Rouge and Dreamgirls, are concerned with the backstage tribulations of show folk, and employ stock storylines on which to hang the songs. Of all the movie genres, the glossy musical has died the stoniest of deaths. People too young to be courted by AARP may find Busby Berkeley’s calculus of female body parts or Fred and Ginger’s between-dancing spats or the Technicolor trippiness of Fox and MGM burlesques to be a realm as foreign as Oz. Camp will take you only so far down the yellow brick road. Even I, a diehard fan of musicals, am dumbfounded by Esther Williams.
Yet jazz has long been an important part of the mix, and we must be grateful for what we have in the way of jazz footage on film and videotape. The twisted relationship between movies and jazz predated the sound era, when the latter was often invoked as an ominous indication of wayward flappers, dissolute roués and other lost souls. As decades went by, jazz continued to represent the underbelly of the human experience.