This is a very difficult epinion for me to write because I love jazz so much and movies about jazz are few and far between or just plain lousy. In the 50's, there was a trend to memorialize some of the big band greats, but with one exception, they were mostly inferior as films and are at best extended videos for the bands.
What is hard to believe is that no one has made a movie about Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie. Could it be they all of the men I just mentioned are black. Surely Hollywood couldn't be called racist.
Also, with the exception of the terrible movie about Billie Holiday
Well, enough griping. I could not find ten movies about jazz that I could put on a ten best list so I included some movies that featured jazz. I'm sorry, but it is sad that the greatest art form of the 20th Century which originated in the U. S. has been virtually ignored by the movie industry.
I have a small list of Honorable Mentions that I will simply mention by title: THE FABULOUS DORSEYS; THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY; THE GENE KRUPA STORY; PETE KELLEY'S BLUES; MO' BETTER BLUES; THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1937; STORMY WEATHER; ALL THAT JAZZ. For the most part, the music in these films is the only reason worth watching them.
Now for my top ten list which unlike my other lists only contains ten movies. I have learned to count. Not really, I just couldn't find any more movies in this category to call best".
10. CABIN IN THE SKY (1943)
Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Stars Eddie Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Not an incredibly great story line, the forces of good and evil fight for the soul of Mr. Anderson and it is told in a racist way. But the music is truly great and just seeing Lena, Louis and Duke in a movie is worth watching it.
9. BEST FOOT FORWARD (1943)
Dir. Edward Buzzell. Stars Lucille Ball, William Gazton, Virginia Weidler, Tommy Dix, Nancy Walker. This film came from a Broadway musical about a Hollywood movie star visiting a small-town high school for something to do. Once again, the music is better than the storyline. Harry James' orchestra is heard in great form on Two O'Clock Jump" and there is some great dancing.
8. KANSAS CITY (1996)
Dir. Robert Altman. Stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte. Really stars Nicholas Payton, Joshua Redman, Mark Whitfield, Christian McBride, Cyrus Chestnut and Ron Carter. When I first heart about this movie, I was delirious. How could it miss? Altman, KC, where jazz was king, and great young musicians. Well, after I saw the film, I realized that there was truly great jazz but little else to recommend this rather rambling tale of political corruption. But for anyone who thinks jazz lacks young stars, please see this movie. There is a great re-creation of the famous Coleman Hawkins-Lester Young after hours battles and there young cats can play.
7. ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959)
Dir. Otto Preminger. Stars James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O'Connell, George C. Scott. By far the best movie on this entire list, I include it here because of the Duke Ellington score and orchestral performance. It is not a jazz movie but the jazz in the movie is outstanding. Many years later, Terance Blanchard included the main theme from the film in his wonderful album concerning jazz in films.
6. BIRD (1988)
Dir. Clint Eastwood. Stars Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker. Could have been the best jazz movie of all time but jazz lover Eastwood spends too much time on Charlie Parker's drug and personal problems and not enough time on his effect on the jazz world. Whitaker is wonderful and the music really is Parker. I know Bird destroyed his life but he gave birth to a whole new concept that is still living today: Be-Bop.
5. THE GLENN MILLER STORY (1954)
Dir. Anthony Mann. Stars Jimmy Stewart, June Allison, Charle Drake, Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa. Stewart does a great job of playing one of America's heroes who lost his life during WWII. But much of the biographical information is make-believe. Why? His real life story may have not been Citizen Kane but why make up facts". The reason it's on my list is that nearly every Miller hit is included in the movie which at least gets that right.
4. YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1950)
Dir. Michael Curtiz. Stars Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Hoagy Carmichael. Inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke, this movie is, at least, about a jazz musician. Much as in Bix's life, Douglas has twin compulsions: jazz and booze. Kirk does a great job of acting while Harry James does the real trumpet playing. Bacall and Day compete for what is left of Douglas after the music and liquor. Well written and acted.
3. THE MAN WITH A GOLDEN ARM (1955)
Dir. Otto Preminger. Stars Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak. Great on two fronts: Sinatra's portrayal of a junkie musician who kicks the habit the hard way and the wonderful Elmer Bernstein jazz score. Now that drug movies and television shows are churned out on a regular basis, this movie looks a little old fashioned but it didn't in 1955. Powerful movie.
2. TUNE IN TOMORROW (1990)
Dir. Jon Amiel. Stars Barbara Hershey, Keanu Reeves, Peter Falk. One of the funniest movies I've ever seen, there is also great jazz throughout the film. Set in the early '50's in New Orleans, Falk steals the movie as the writer for a radio soap opera. Hershey and Reeves are his dupes and the movie is full of laughs. Not funny is the great score by Winton Marsalis who put out a CD of the soundtrack. It is tremendous. Great movie with great music? Who could ask for anything more?
1. 'ROUND MIDNIGHT (1986)
Dir. Bertrand Tavernier. Stars Dexter Gordon, Franqois Chizet, Gabrielle Haker, Herbie Hancock. Well, here's a shocker. The best movie ever made about jazz is from a French director. It's not really as much a surprise at it seems as the French really seem to love jazz more than Americans. This is the story of an ex-patriot tenor sax jazz player who moves to Paris and is practically adopted by a young jazz fan.
The saxman has a drinking problem but his friend even helps him with that. This story is based on such greats as Bud Powell and Lester Young and real life sax player Gordon does an incredible job of acting (or was he just playing himself?) The Herbie Hancock score is beautiful and perfect to set the tone of the film. Truly a masterpiece.
Well, there you have it. I found dozens of comedies, Westerns, mysteries and political movies, but this was it for jazz. I'm sure I've left out some great films that include jazz (such as The Days of Wine and Roses with Mancini's great score) but I just wish some new jazz loving director would add to this short list.