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Great Jazz Movies

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  01 Apr 2016 

Don Cheadle brings his Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead to theaters this weekend, and given that this month has also brought us Ethan Hawke in the Chet Baker-inspired Born to Be Blue, we decided there could be no better moment to devote a feature to some of the best jazz films in Hollywood history. From groundbreaking arthouse efforts to Oscar-winning crowd-pleasers, there’s something for everyone here, so tune up.

charts
6 The Connection
imdb
rating

7.1

The Connection (2014)

Crime, Drama, History

Acclaimed director Shirley Clarke made her feature-length debut with this 1961 adaptation of the Jack Gelber play, which uses a group of jazz musicians waiting for a score from their dealer as the launchpad for a loose, thought-provoking, and ultimately groundbreaking look at music and addiction in the beatnik era. The experience, according to Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, adds up to “A lean, mean saga of jazz, junk and rebellion.”

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Newly transferred to the bustling port city of Marseille to assist with a crackdown on organized crime, energetic young magistrate Pierre Michel is given a rapid-fire tutorial on the ins and outs of an out-of-control drug trade. Pierre's wildly ambitious mission is to take on the French Connection, a highly organized operation that controls the city's underground heroin economy and is overseen by the notorious —and reputedly untouchable— Gaetan Zampa. Fearless, determined and willing to go the distance, Pierre plunges into an underworld world of insane danger and ruthless criminals.

actors:
Jean Dujardin as Pierre Michel   Gilles Lellouche as Gaëtan Zampa   Benoît Magimel as    Céline Sallette as    Bruno Todeschini as    Pauline Burlet as Lily   Mélanie Doutey as   

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5 Lady Sings the Blues
imdb
rating

7.1

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

Drama, Music

It would be all but impossible to satisfactorily summarize a life as large as Billie Holiday’s, no matter how big the screen — but 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues gets most of the way there, and Holiday herself couldn’t have asked for a better cast than the one assembled by director Sidney J. Furie. Diana Ross ran with the role of a lifetime as the legendary singer, earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination and holding her own against an ensemble supporting cast that included Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, all while pulling double duty on a bestselling soundtrack that helped reintroduce Holiday’s classic songs through Ross’ interpretations. “Furie,” wrote the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr, “never again seemed so adept or comfortable with genre material: this show-biz bio hits all of the high points of the formula with some measure of precision.”

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Chronicles the rise and fall of legendary blues singer Billie Holiday. Her late childhood, stint as a prostitute, early tours, marriages and drug addiction are featured.

actors:
Diana Ross as Billie Holiday   Billy Dee Williams as Louis McKay   Richard Pryor as Piano Man   James T. Callahan as Reg Hanley (as James Callahan)   Paul Hampton as Harry   Sid Melton as Jerry   Virginia Capers as Mama Holiday   Yvonne Fair as Yvonne   Isabel Sanford as The Madame  

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4 Mo' Better Blues
imdb
rating

6.5

Mo' Better Blues (1990)

Drama, Romance

Spike Lee followed the triumph of 1989’s Do the Right Thing with Mo’ Better Blues, a period jazz musical drama that could hardly have felt like more of a hard left turn during hip-hop’s commercial ascension. Trends aside, Lee — aided by a strong cast that included Denzel Washington as a talented trumpet player and Wesley Snipes as his showboating saxophonist — used the music and the conflicts of a bygone era to impart a handful of immutable truths about art, commerce, and the pursuit of a dream. Calling it “full of wonderful music, grand visuals, and melodramatic plot twists,” TV Guide wrote, “the movie is laced with very funny moments, as well as interesting insights into the world of jazz and the plight of the dedicated musician.”

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Opens with Bleek as a child learning to play the trumpet, his friends want him to come out and play but mother insists he finish his lessons. Bleek grows into adulthood and forms his own band - The Bleek Gilliam Quartet. The story of Bleek's and Shadow's friendly rivalry on stage which spills into their professional relationship and threatens to tear apart the quartet.

actors:
Denzel Washington as Bleek Gilliam   Spike Lee as Giant   Wesley Snipes as Shadow Henderson (Sax)   Giancarlo Esposito as Left Hand Lacey (Piano)   John Turturro as Moe Flatbush   Samuel L. Jackson as Madlock  

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3 'Round Midnight
imdb
rating

7.4

'Round Midnight (1986)

Drama

Real-life jazz giant Dexter Gordon earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work in this 1986 drama, which looks at the budding friendship between a legendary sax player and a fan who meet in Paris during the ’50s. Director Bertrand Tavernier’s attention to detail and obvious fondness for the jazz world are evident in every frame of ‘Round Midnight, which takes a handful of tropes associated with the music of the era — including the substance abuse that plagued too many of its performers — and weaves a timeless tale that’s enjoyed decades of critical acclaim. The end result, as Paul Attanasio wrote for the Washington Post, is “A lovingly gentle yet vibrant tribute to jazz, friendship and film itself, made by a director of consummate taste and precise imagination.”

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Inside the Blue Note nightclub one night in 1959 Paris, an aged, ailing jazzman coaxes an eloquent wail from his tenor sax. Outside, a young Parisian too broke to buy a glass of wine strains to hear those notes. Soon they will form a friendship that sparks a final burst of genius in director Bertrand Tavernier

actors:
Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner   François Cluzet as Francis Borler   Gabrielle Haker as Bérangère   Christine Pascal as Sylvie   Pierre Trabaud as le père de Francis   Frédérique Meininger as la mère de Francis   Liliane Rovère as Madame Queen   Ged Marlon as Beau   Benoît Régent as le psychiâtre   Philippe Noiret as Redon   Alain Sarde as Terzian   Eddy Mitchell as l'ivrogne au bar du Blue Note   Sandra Reaves-Phillips as Buttercup   Lonette McKee as Darcey Leigh   Herbie Hancock as Eddie Wayne   Bobby Hutcherson as Ace   Hart Leroy Bibbs as Herschell   Victoria Gabrielle Platt as Chan Turner   John Berry as Ben   Martin Scorsese as Goodley  

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2 Sweet and Lowdown
imdb
rating

7.3

Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Comedy, Drama

Woody Allen’s love of jazz has informed his life’s work in any number of ways, but if you’re looking for the movie that most directly reflects his fondness for the music, it can’t hurt to start with Sweet and Lowdown. Starring Sean Penn as a fictional ’30s jazz guitarist who sees himself as a peer of Django Reinhardt’s, it steeps Allen’s usual techniques in a potent brew of strong acting, fine period detail, and — of course — a smartly crafted soundtrack. Penn and Samantha Morton both earned Oscar nominations for their work, and while it wasn’t one of Allen’s bigger hits, it was greeted with applause by the majority of critics, including the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who deemed it “one very tuneful labor of love.”

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A comedic biopic focused on the life of fictional jazz guitarist Emmett Ray. Ray was an irresponsible, free-spending, arrogant, obnoxious, alcohol-abusing, miserable human being, who was also arguably the best guitarist in the world.

actors:
Woody Allen as Himself   Ben Duncan as Himself   Daniel Okrent as A.J. Pickman   Dan Moran as Boss   Tony Darrow as Ben   Chris Bauer as Ace - Pool Player   Sean Penn as Emmet Ray   Constance Shulman as Hazel - Hooker #1   Darryl Alan Reed as Don   James Urbaniak as Harry   Kellie Overbey as Iris - Hooker #2   Uma Thurman as Blanche   Denis O'Hare as Jake   Marc Damon Johnson as Omer   Ron C. Jones as Alvin (as Ron Cephas Jones)   Samantha Morton as Hattie   Steve Bargonetti as Musician Friend   Anthony LaPaglia as Al Torrio   Benjamin Franklin Brown as Musician Friend   Brad Garrett as Joe Bedloe   Gretchen Mol as Ellie  

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1 Whiplash
imdb
rating

8.5

Whiplash (2014)

Drama

While a number of jazz purists (and musicians in general) have taken extreme issue with the way Whiplash portrays certain sectors of the musical community — not to mention what it seems to suggest regarding an artist’s sacrifices on his journey to greatness — there’s no denying that it’s one of the few recent films to make any kind of attempt to get inside the music. It’s also eminently well-acted, as evidenced by the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that J.K. Simmons took home for his volcanic turn as borderline psychotic music instructor Terence Fletcher — and of course, it’s got a solid soundtrack to boot. As Moira MacDonald wrote for the Seattle Times, “The film works, often wonderfully, as a remarkable visualization of jazz music — you feel it and breathe it, just like the musicians — and as a showcase for the two actors at its center.”

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Under the direction of a ruthless instructor, a talented young drummer begins to pursue perfection at any cost, even his humanity.

actors:
Miles Teller as    J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher   Melissa Benoist as Nicole   Austin Stowell as Ryan   Jayson Blair as Travis   Kavita Patil as Sophie  

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