The New York Film Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a large slate of films and will open September 28th and run through October 14th.
Two documentaries featured deal with the indelible effect of music on culture and history. I was particularly taken with The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America, written and directed by Jeff Kaufman. The documentary relies mostly on first-hand accounts, some film clips (there is only a four second clip of Webb in existence today) and stills. The film tells the story of Chick Webb, a drummer who had his own band and his own style of Swing during the 1930’s. Webb was also documented in Ken Burn’s History of Jazz, but Kaufmann sets out to expand the story.
Born fatherless and poor in Baltimore, Chick Webb broke his back at age four and developed spinal tuberculosis leaving him hunchbacked with limited use of his legs. Drumming was suggested as a way to build up his upper body strength and the drum and jazz music became his life. His talent and drive were formidable. Early in his career Duke Ellington mentored Webb and helped him form his band.
Just a little over four feet tall, Webb sat on a raised platform behind the band drumming his way to history. Kaufman crafts an exciting documentary given his limited resource material. He taps into the memories of Freddie Manning and Norma Miller, both “Lindy Hop” dancers at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. He also uses voiceovers by stars reading the words of music legends now dead. Bill Cosby reads the quotes of Webb and a breathy Janet Jackson is heard as Ella Fitzgerald. Everyone attests to the artistry and musical integrity that Webb brought to his music and to The Savoy Ballroom.
Webb became the lead band at The Savoy Ballroom and his song “Stomping At The Savoy” rocked the house. The Savoy became the home of the Lindy Hop craze and was the first club in our country where blacks and whites could dance and socialize together. This was a huge step forward in integration and at the press conference, Kaufman called Webb the Rosa Parks of American music clubs. It is amazing that as late as the1930’s places like The Cotton Club in Harlem were completely segregated and only allowed white patrons who listened and danced to black entertainers.
The Savoy Ballroom was owned by Moe Gale, a white man who made a calculated business decision to integrate the ballroom and ring the cash register. It was Webb who brought them in. Unbelievably, five to six thousand dancers packed the ballroom and there is still some footage of the dancing. The dancers shook the house to Webb’s music and the energy of the dancers and music is wild. It was claimed that the dance floor had to be replaced every three years.
When Webb died ten thousand people crowded the streets in Harlem for the father of modern jazz drumming’s funeral. This wonderful documentary is put together with creativity and love. I hope it travels to many viewers outside of the festivals.NYFF’s fiftieth anniversary is also the fiftieth anniversary of The Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones Charlie Is My Darling-Ireland ’65, originally directed by Peter Whitehead, is pure nostalgia as well as an interesting historical document. The original thirty-five minute film was never released. It has been expanded to sixty minutes using newly found footage, this time directed by Mick Gochanour.
Shot during a quick tour of Ireland just weeks after their song “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” hit number one on the charts, the documentary is a behind the scenes diary of life on the road with the young Stones. It records a time when young people began to feel the full force of the 60’s cultural revolution, rejecting the post war path followed by their parents and embracing mind expanding drugs and sexual freedom.
A beautiful fresh-faced Mick Jagger talks about the band’s future and wonders if any of their songs will have a shelf life longer than a year. In another clip, he discusses the youth revolution and prognosticates that the change young people are seeking will take several generations to achieve. Keith Richards is almost unrecognizable as an innocent looking young man. Prancing around on the stage, fighting off the adoring masses and goofing for the camera together, the band is wonderful.
The film will be packaged as a DVD special with the director’s cut, the producer’s cut, and the new 2012 version and will be released on November 6th.
Barbara Castro is a Family Mediator and is currently working on a film project to introduce divorcing families to the benefits of mediation rather than litigation.