Two jazz-themed movies are out this week ion fresh Blue-ray releases. Here’s what The New York Times has to say about “Pete Kelly’s Blues” and “Ornette: Made in America.”
In addition to his hyphenates, the writer-producer-director-actor Jack Webb had two alter egos, both of which he played on radio, television and the movie screen. One was the protagonist of “Dragnet,” the laconic, no-nonsense, somewhat sour Los Angeles cop Sgt. Joe Friday, parodied for his insistence on “the facts”; the other, perhaps dearer to Webb’s heart, was the laconic, no-nonsense and even more sour Kansas City jazz cornetist, Pete Kelly.
Adapted from a short-lived radio series, Webb’s most elaborate movie, “Pete Kelly’s Blues” (1955), newly out on an excellently digitalized Blu-ray from Warner Archive, is a major artifact of the Dixieland revival. This wide-screen, Warnercolor production may be longer on ambition than style but it is bookended by two notable set pieces — a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral with a tender regard for an extended trumpet solo and a many-vectored shootout beneath the mirrored ball of an empty dance hall.
Such showmanship notwithstanding, “Pete Kelly’s Blues” received some savage pans on its original release. Still, given that the tiresome narrative that pits Webb’s grim bandleader against Edmond O’Brien’s blustering gangster periodically stops dead to accommodate complete performances by a swinging Ella Fitzgerald and cool, sultry Peggy Lee (nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar), the movie has carved out a deserved niche among aficionados. The jazz critic Gary Giddins recently characterized the music as “mostly superb.” “Pete Kelly’s Blues” is credited with helping to return “Bye Bye Blackbird” to the jazz repertoire and, thanks to Fitzgerald’s rendition, making a hit of the even older chestnut “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah).”
Webb’s long takes and wide-screen mise-en-scène have also been praised as has his propensity to cast against type. (The scary Lee Marvin is here as a sweet-tempered clarinetist; the amiable Andy Devine impersonates a tough cop; the nice girl Janet Leigh appears as a man-hungry flapper.) Webb himself plays a version of Sergeant Friday, glaring at the camera in frontal TV-style close-ups. He’s the resident divo — however buttoned-up, continually irritated and apparently determined to belie the trailer included as an extra that hails him as “Today’s Most Exciting Entertainment Personality.”
“Ornette: Made in America”: Shirley Clarke’s last and least-known feature, released in 1985, restored in 2012, and now available on Blu-ray and DVD, is a portrait of the free jazz genius Ornette Coleman that is an immersion in Coleman’s music and philosophy, a remarkable nonlinear mosaic and a triumph of editing. (Milestone)
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