Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Paris Blues

PARIS BLUES            B+                  
USA  (98 mi)  1961  d:  Martin Ritt

An interesting match up here featuring Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as Ram and Eddie, two rising star American jazz musicians trying to make it in Paris, joined by two vacationing American girls in town for a couple weeks, Joanne Woodward as Lillian and Diahann Carroll, looking positively stunning as Connie, also starring trumpeter non pareil Louis Armstrong with a musical soundtrack written by none other than Duke Ellington and the uncredited Billy Strayhorn, including passages of “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady,” along with a wild jazz session called “Battle Royal” near the end with Armstrong.  Wow—that sounds pretty much like royalty, especially considering the timing of this film, made between some of Newman’s greatest roles, THE HUSTLER (1961), SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1962), and HUD (1963), while for Poitier, this film came between A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961) and LILLIES OF THE FIELD (1963).  Add to this Italian actor turned French citizen Serge Reggiani, from Max Ophuls’ LA RONDE (1950) and Jacques Becker’s CASQUE D’OR (1952) as a drug-addicted guitar player.  Despite the all star lineup, the film is weakened by a somewhat predictable script about Poitier escaping from America’s racism (never developed) and Newman’s desire to become a “serious” composer (never in doubt when we hear his jazz compositions, but there are serious doubts if he wishes to make a leap to classical, which is not made clear in the film, and frankly is not really inherent in the film’s character, where “Paris Blues,” the titled piece featured in the film that he spends all night working on is a jazz composition), where even though told in a realist style coinciding with the outbreak of the French New Wave, the frenetic energy exhibited in the musical nightclub sequences puts any storyline to shame considering the jazz authenticity on display throughout.  It’s impossible not to be a bit overwhelmed by all the talent here which is kept to a cool simmer, with plenty of picture postcard shots of Paris and an outstanding musical soundtrack that provides what the film was really looking for, the love of jazz, where the somewhat contrived romance angle is purely secondary.  Newman and Poitier play trombone and saxophone, actually performed by Murray McEachern and Paul Gonsalves from Duke’s orchestra, dubbed afterwards in American studios.  

A rare treat here is also watching Newman and Woodward, who was pregnant here, married just three years earlier, working together in this their 4th of ten films together, where they display a rare intimacy, much like John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands working together, even though Newman plays something of a heel, a two-timing, egocentric musician wrapped up in his music and his career, where he always seems to have a chip on his shoulder.  In a composite of several of their scenes together Paris Blues (1961) - Paul Newman - Joanne Woodward YouTube (10:30), including one of the scenes of the film, her “You’re never gonna forget me” speech coming just before the 9-minute mark of the clip, where she displays that irresistible smalltown charm where he lets down his guard momentarily before reasserting his self-centered demeanor.  Poitier and Carroll are also wonderful together YouTube - Clips from Paris Blues YouTube (2:22), both in their prime, where Carroll never looked so dazzlingly beautiful, while also offering a piece of her mind as well, claiming it’s time for Eddie to stop running away and come back home.  Both were romantically linked during the filming of PORGY AND BESS (1959), but because both were married with families, they tried to stay apart, brought together as onscreen lovers again, which was an excruciating ordeal for Poitier, whose wife and family were present for part of the shooting.  Playing music until dawn, the two couples walk during the day through the streets of Paris, see the sights, take a river cruise, and fall in love in the City of Lights, where the picturesque backdrop couldn’t be more appealing, beautifully shot in Black and White by Christian Matras.  One of the interesting aspects is how they met by chance, as Ram initially meets Connie on their incoming train.  In something of a daring display of interracial romance, he’s actually more attracted to her, as expressed after their nightclub set when he ignores Lillian in favor of Connie.  Coming from America, Connie’s not used to this display of racial openness and is taken aback, even as she sees couples embraced on the streets everywhere throughout the city, and the nightclub has several mixed couples as well.  Given the time period, well before the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, two years before the killing of Medgar Evers, this is a major social statement in an American film, even if it is only suggested and remains undeveloped.       

Ram is also carrying on an affair with the nightclub owner, Barbara Laage as Marie Séoul, who also interestingly sings a musical number.  But Ram is the star of the show, as seen taking the lead solo on “Mood Indigo” Paris Blues "Mood Indigo" (1961) (3:30), where the subterranean nightclub atmosphere is filled with bohemian culture, almost always a packed house.  The sequence of the film is the extraordinary appearance of Louis Armstrong, where the mood turns electric PARIS BLUES (1961) - Battle Royal (6:02), jamming with each member of the band.  You can’t write this kind of exhilaration, it just happens, creating an explosive feeling within the club itself, a magical moment where everything is right in the world, exactly how Eddie feels when he realizes his true feelings for Connie.  There’s an unfortunate storyline thread about birds, where we see them on rooftops, and in cages for sale on the streets, an all too obvious metaphor for the free spirit of a jazz musician, where being caged, unable to fly is paramount to death.  This segment seems more appropriate for Ram, as he’s the one attempting to break through a barrier of free spirited jazz improvisation to composition, not at all an easy transformation, where Lillian’s affections feel like a cage for him, a stifling suffocation just when he needs to learn the art of writing arrangements.  The wall to wall jazz music is simply extraordinary, as are the two couples in a rare display of realism instead of an overblown Hollywood romance.  John Cassavetes was up for the Paul Newman role and was familiar with the script, attempting to match the music and spontaneity of this film with one of his own, released at the same time, Too Late Blues (1961), where Cassavetes wanted to throw in 17 new jazz pieces into his film, shot entirely in New York City’s Greenwich Village jazz scene, but the studio blocked his requests, forcing him instead to shoot almost entirely inside the studio.  That film feels more reserved and suffocating, while Ritt’s film lives and breathes the streets of Paris, featuring the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, where the feverish intensity of live music in jammed nightclubs couldn’t be more exhilarating.
The participation of Ellington (behind the camera) and Louis Armstrong onscreen is itself significant.  The film effectively begins when Wild Man Moore (Armstrong, one of the few times in a film where he’s not playing himself), arrives in Paris, and it ends as he departs.  Cheering throngs greet him at the train station when he arrives, where a band plays for him, leading Armstrong to join in an impromptu jazz moment.  Ellington’s first musical soundtrack was Otto Preminger’s ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959), where only part of what Ellington and Strayhorn wrote together was actually used in the film, but he had the most control over the musical soundtrack in this film, where what one hears onscreen is exactly as they intended.  Despite the overlapping careers of such great jazz legends as Duke Ellington (1899 – 1974) and Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971), the two rarely encountered one another, but they stayed in the same hotel during the shooting of the film, discussing the possibilities of working together.  They met again upon returning back home and arranged an RCA recording session on April 3 and 4th, 1961, leading to an album released as The Great Summit, where the band was Armstrong’s, but the music was written by Ellington.  A list of some of the great Ellington musicians heard in the film:  pianist/composer Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and Clark Terry, saxophonist Oliver Nelson and Paul Gonsalves, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, drummer Max Roach, Sonny Greer, and Philly Joe Jones, trombonists Juan Tizol, Britt Woodman, Billy Byers, and Murray McEachern.  Paris pianist Aaron Bridgers, the house pianist of the Mars Club, a tiny cabaret with an openly gay clientele, which may have been a model for the club in the film, appears as the pianist in Ram Bowen’s band, though the only piano heard on the soundtrack is either Ellington or Strayhorn.  Strayhorn stuck around Paris and recorded an album with a string quartet of Parisian musicians, one of the few albums released under his own name, entitled The Peaceful Side.  Strayhorn actually arrived in Paris a month before Ellington, directing the music in earlier rehearsals, largely for the benefit of the actors who play musicians, where the musical scores used in the film are in the Smithsonian Institute.  

The film is based on a 1957 novel by Harold Flender, following the exploits of a black American saxophonist Eddie Jones in Paris who plays Dixieland or mainstream jazz, happy just to be working, appreciating the tolerance for blacks in Paris.  He meets a black American schoolteacher on vacation, Connie, and falls in love.  The novel introduces trumpet player Wild Man Moore, already based upon Louis Armstrong, who offers him a job that he at first refuses, but when he realizes he’ll be returning to America with Connie, he can hook up with the band in the States.  The Ram Bowen character, the name a variation on the French poet Rimbaud, was originally based upon Benny, a pianist in Eddie’s band, who hooks up with Connie’s roommate Lillian so Eddie and his girl can be alone together.  Benny shows Lillian the wilder side of Paris, including an all night nudist swimming club, which she finds teasingly provocative, but also crudely offensive, returning home alone.  Lulla Adler adapted the novel, while Jack Sher, Irene Kamp, and Walter Bernstein provided a screenplay for the film, changing the leader of the band to Ram, including his desire to become a serious composer, receiving arrangement assistance from Eddie.  Ellington was not aware of these script changes from the novel when he started working, believing the romantic couples would be Paul Newman and Diahann Carroll, and Sidney Poitier with Joanne Woodward, where the opening scene seems to be preparing the audience for a range of relationships from gay to interracial, a milieu intimately understood by the openly gay Strayhorn.  In a similar scene twenty minutes into the film, a pan of the club audience couldn’t be more different, as gone are the same sex and mixed race couples, as by then the United Artist Studio executives lost their nerve and decided to drop the interracial angle.  It wasn’t until 1967, well after Sidney Poitier was an established star, that Hollywood romantically linked a major black star with a white girlfriend in Stanley Kramer’s GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER.  The mix of black and white in PARIS BLUES may as well be jazz and classical, as in a late scene with a musical publisher (arranged by Wild Man Moore), Ram’s music is not accepted as “serious” enough, suggesting it needs conservatory training, a typical and somewhat condescending view of those in the (white European) classical music community, which interestingly suggests (American black) jazz is not a “serious” art form, even if written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, a question they attempted to overcome their entire lives, though both Armstrong and Ellington’s entire discography would refute such a claim. 

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