Monday, October 29, 2012

Family Movie Night: A Great Day in Harlem

Title: A Great Day in Harlem
Director: Jean Bach
Original Release: 1994
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bach's documentary tells the story of one of the 20th century's greatest photographs:

Photo via DAFLAND
(the photo is only being used for informational purposes)

On August 12, 1958, freelance photographer Art Kane managed to gather 57 titans of the New York jazz world for a photo shoot.  The men and women in the photograph represent multiple jazz generations.  Among those assembled were established veterans like Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.  Slightly younger but very much in their prime were Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk (best music name EVER).  Sonny Rollins was among the legends on the rise. 

The film is a lot of fun, telling the story of the day and how extraordinary it was just to get that many jazz musicians up by 10 a.m., let alone smiling for the camera.  Enough of the participants were still alive during the documentary's filming for the musicians to tell their own stories about one another, expanding upon the personalities revealed in the picture.  Now, 18 years later, all but four of the musicians in the photograph are gone.  There are loads of film clips of their performances as well, though one can't help wishing there were more.

Included with the DVD is Bach's documentary short, The Spitball Story.  There are long-standing legends about the pranks Gillespie used to play as a young musician in Cab Calloway's band, including the one about the spitball that got him fired.  In the film, Gillespie tells his side of the story.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • I don't know if Our Girl was too interested in the first film.  The stories the musicians tell are a lot of fun but the pacing is not the best for a kid.  On the other hand, she loved The Spitball Story.  She's a big Cab Calloway fan and he is among the notably absent in A Great Day in Harlem.

My Rating System:

5 = The best of the best.  These are the films by which I judge other films.
4 = High quality films which I feel could hold up well in repeated viewings.
3 = The vast majority of films.  They're fine.  Once was enough.
2 = I wasn't even sure I wanted to finish it.  It's not a 1 because I'm not prepared to say it's a terrible film - just not my cup of tea.
1 = A terrible film.  An insult to the art form.


  1. Cab Calloway! I love this and, even more, this. (Some really spooky but ace animation from the Fleischer brothers in that second link, just in time for Hallowe'en.)