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Django: A Film As Much About History and Culture as About A Musical Icon

Victor L. Schermer By

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Director: Étienne Comar
Milky Way

Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) practically invented jazz guitar. A product of gypsy culture and music, living and working in Paris in the 1930s-40s, he and his group, the Hot Club Quintet, which notably included violinist Stephane Grappelli, brought their own brand of swing to the clubs of Montmartre. American musicians like Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Duke Ellington were captivated by Reinhardt's playing and, along with his recordings and a trip to America, fostered his lasting and still strong influence on several generations of jazz guitarists. A new feature film about him is bound to attract the attention of the jazz community.

The film, Django, directed by Étienne Comar, is not a documentary, but rather a drama with a semi-fictionalized plot covering mainly the period from 1943-1945, during the Nazi occupation of France, when gypsies were under the threat of deportation and annihilation (600,000 gypsies were murdered by the Nazis during the time of the Holocaust). Reinhardt, in the midst of his fame and success, playing gigs around Paris, juggling a steamy love affair with a difficult marriage, is in danger of being arrested by the Nazis, who at the same time enjoy his music and try to get him to perform in Berlin for the Nazi leaders. Refusing to do this, he leaves Paris, spends time with friends at a gypsy encampment, is forced to perform at a dinner for Nazi officers, and, when the evening goes awry, tries to escape to Switzerland. The film is ambiguous about whether he crossed the border to safety (in real life, he didn't, but instead returned to Paris.) The film ends as Paris is liberated and Reinhardt conducts an orchestra and chorus in a Requiem he wrote while on the lam that is dedicated to victims of Nazi persecution. (This concert actually happened, but only a short excerpt of the composition was later retrieved.)

While the protagonist is Reinhardt, the film centers largely around romano gypsy life, culture, and music. Much of the dialogue is spoken in the gypsy dialect of manouche. Many of the actors are gypsies. For example, Bimbam Merstein, who beautifully portrays Reinhart's mother is in real life a gypsy dancer and musician. We get a genuine picture of gypsy life that is more authentic than most others on film. Most importantly, we are made acutely aware of the fact that the Nazi atrocities were directed against not only Jews, but gypsies, gays, and virtually all outsider groups (so-called non-Aryans). This in itself is an important mark in film-making.

For jazz aficionados, however, interest will be focused on Reinhardt and his music. In that respect, the film has its limitations. It covers a narrow time period of two years, hardly constituting a biography of a life that spanned 43. Moreover, Reda Ketab plays Django in an understated, introspective way that is touching but far from "savage," as Jean Cocteau described him. There is little of the compulsive grit of a Django who recovered from fire burns to two of his fingers to play lightning fast intricate runs and chord changes on the other three. Django's music fares somewhat better. Guitarist Stochelo Rosenberg overdubbed Django's playing with great skill and with fidelity to Reinhardts' recordings. However, no one can successfully imitate the playing of such a unique musician, so even if you've heard a single record of the master, you will be aware of the difference. Nevertheless, the overall effect is quite believable, and, as you get drawn into the narrative and characters, the music and Reinhardt's personality come quite alive. The music flows and adds zest to the film. But if you're expecting to experience the evolution of Reinhardt's music, you will be disappointed.

What you do get is some fine playing that is performed both as part of the action and in the background. The first performance occurs at a large Parisian concert hall, probably La Pleyel where many American musicians of the time were featured. As one critic noted, "What characterizes this music is a rhythmical style of accompaniment we call 'the pump.' It's rare for musicians to master it. It's a manouche jazz thing. But once you can do 'the pump,' you can do everything." That "pump" enlivens the music and the film, and while different from the American version of swing, had a profound influence on it.

In addition, the film illustrates the close relationship between jazz, the culture, and daily life. It reminds us that jazz serves as an escape from, fuel for, and accompaniment to what is going on in the world and in our daily lives.

Jazz was an important source of liberation for Europeans, a way of being free of constraints and doctrine. It was also a way to enjoy life and forget the immanent dangers surrounding daily life. The film effectively weaves the music into the story, for example accentuating Reinhardt's mood changes as he vacillates between an intense and conflicted love affair and a deep affection for his wife. In another context, Reinhardt and his group are forced to perform at a dinner party for the Nazis. They start out by performing soft, uncontroversial background music required by the Nazi authorities, but soon pick up the pace. The party-goers love dancing to it, but, as the music becomes more "jazzy" and erotically tinged, the civilian authority figure calls a stop to it, leading to a chaotic situation from which Reinhardt must escape. The scene is a graphic illustration of how music and political realities interact. African Americans experienced their own interactions between music and political agendas during the Civil Rights movement.

In short, Django, Comar's first shot at directing (his past work has been as producer and screenwriter), succeeds admirably in conveying an important story about music, relationships, culture, and strife during the Nazi occupation of France. Emphasizing Reinhardt's call to take a moral stance almost in spite of himself, it explains why he became a culture hero. In so doing, the film relegates to a parenthetical back story the musical world of Paris and eventually America in which Reinhardt was immersed and played such an important role. There's a whole other Django that we don't see or hear. But, to be fair to Comar, that would be a whole other film.


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