The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Jammin' the Blues (1944/USA/dir. Gjon Mili) appeared at #12 on my original list.
What it is • The opening credits roll over an abstract shape - two circles, one inside the other. Then the shape tips up, revealing itself as the top of a hat, worn by Lester Young. Slowly he lifts his saxophone to his lips and begins to play, and the whole ten-minute short films reels out effortlessly from that point. Well, not effortlessly exactly. The musicians are in top form, both on the soundtrack filled back to front with three of their songs - "Midnight Symphony" (introduced by a narrator in the only lines of spoken word), "On the Sunny Side of the Street" (the only song with lyrics, sung by Marie Bryant), and the title track (accompanied by an unadorned, infectious dance from Bryant and Archie Savage). They are also working hard in front of the camera, but in a different way: precisely miming to their previous recording in the fashion of MTV music videos that would emerge thirty to forty years later. And behind the scenes, director Gjon Mili - an innovative LIFE photographer - carefully arranges lighting effects and camera movements with director of photography Robert Burks, while setting up the perfectly-timed cut-ins and cutaways for editor Everett Dodd (brilliantly, the movie will sometimes jump to a musician who isn't playing at the moment, as when Young calmly lights a cigarette and watches Bryant perform). All of this hard work feels effortless because it flows so naturally and because everyone seems to be having a good time. I think of the film as being massively underrated (it is), even writing for a caption in my #WatchlistScreenCaps series a few years ago, "The greatest fucking musical of all time, and no one knows it!" (of course when I tweeted this someone enthusiastically identified it right away). In fact, it was selected by the National Film Registery and nominated for Best Short the year it came out. Still, it deserves to be even more widely recognized not just as a notable example of its form but a small, perfectly-crafted masterpiece that can stand with the much longer musical narratives of that time or any other. However you categorize it, Jammin' the Blues sizzles.
Why I like it •