One of the best jazz movies
There are few great films about jazz musicians, partly because there have been few black directors in Hollywood. One of the best jazz films, the 1977 film “Passing Through”, was directed by independent filmmaker Larry Clark while his thesis film at UCLA Clark was one of the main members of the so-called LA Rebellion, a group of black filmmakers. which included Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodberry and Jamaa Fanaka. In “Passing Through,” which plays Sunday at MOMA in a retrospective of Clark’s films, the director (whose great-uncle was the amazing and short-lived pianist Sonny Clark) dramatized the world of jazz from the inside: he showed that the practical struggles of jazz musicians are inseparable of the inner life…the spiritual essence—of music.
“Passing Through” is built on a historical framework of the jazz industry – the connections between nightclubs, the recording industry and the underworld that have made the world of classical jazz perilous, all the more so due to racist indifference to the plight of black artists. When Charles Mingus, the great bassist, composer and bandleader, started a record company in the early fifties to present modern jazz as he and other musicians understood it, gangsters threatened him and prevented distribution of the company’s albums to record stores. When saxophonist Gigi Gryce formed a music publishing company and record label later in the decade, he faced similar threats. At a time when modern jazz was booming, musicians were sometimes paid (even by bandleaders) in drugs or offered crumbs for sessions to feed their habits. “Passing Through” distills the story of mob brutality towards jazz artists into a drama about a young saxophonist in Los Angeles and his own small but passionate circle of musicians.
The musician at the center of the film, a saxophonist named Eddie Warmack (Nathaniel Taylor), has just been released from prison; her former partner, Trixie (Sherryl Thompson), is now with another man. Warmack reunites with his musician friends, works to get his chops back, and gets involved with Maya (Pamela Jones), a photographer assigned to take his photo for a glossy magazine article. But his past, and the past of the music scene he finds himself in, keeps coming back, like a recurring nightmare, and his lingering angst drives him and others in his artistic circle to desperate measures.
Warmack has been incarcerated following underworld violence – he rushes to the aid of another musician, named Skeeter (Bob Ogburn), whom mobsters have targeted for his efforts to control the rights to his own music . They blinded Skeeter and Warack killed one of the attackers. Now the musicians are getting organized again: they have a band and a club in a basement to play. They attract the attention of a white music manager, who also drugs the musicians, and a white A. & R. man, who wants Warmack to play more commercial music. The musicians try to create their own label, on which they will release their music as they see fit, and the record companies, getting wind of the plans, again unleash gang violence against the musicians – which Maya witnesses and photographs. . The danger is ambient; Trixie brings a gun to Warmack and Warmack organizes an armed revenge squad.
The extraordinary ambition of “Passing Through” is to pierce the surfaces of drama and get the spirit of jazz and the actual circumstances of its creation on film. (The music is composed by Horace Tapscott, whose band performs it, and the soundtrack also includes music by Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, Grant Green and other luminaries.) The film’s opening sequence is a musical creation montage, with multiple exposures of a vigorously modern band seen in moody rich tones of blue and red; the quick fingering of a saxophone and the angular athleticism of the drums layer together to give visual identity to the rhythms of the music. The sequence merges documentary and impressionism, recording and transformation, while crowning its painterly energy with another rhythmic red light that is part of jazz life: a spinning traffic light atop a police car.
Throughout the action, the past emerges not only as an influence, a set of facts or a subject of discussion but as an audiovisual presence. Clark places personal and political history at the forefront, on the same narrative level as the characters’ present-day dramas, marking memory and history as active forces in building personality and community. Musical performances are punctuated with documentary scenes of the violent repression of black protests in the civil rights movement, the burning fires of riots, the police occupation of cities, the Attica uprising and its violent repression. – and dramatized scenes of brutal treatment that Warmack endured and witnessed in prison. Maya is the mother of a young child; her former partner, the child’s father, was a photojournalist who was killed while reporting on Guinea-Bissau’s liberation war, and Clark shows footage of that conflict. (There’s a long scene of the new couple together, in Warmack’s bare, neon-drenched rented bedroom, which places the dialogue-rich intimacy of a new romantic relationship at the center of the characters’ identity and quest. .)
“Passing Through” connects music not only to history but also to personal history, in an almost metaphysical sense, through Warmack’s memories of his grandfather, Poppa Harris (played by Clarence Muse, then at the late 1980s, a Hollywood veteran of the 1920s), a great musician who was also his teacher and mentor. Warmack, upon his release from prison, first seeks to see Poppa, but the old man is said to have left with a woman and has not been seen for a while. In the absence of an in-person reunion, Warmack remembers Poppa and their shared past comes back in visions. Scenes from Warmack’s music lessons with Poppa as a child are joined to Poppa’s mythological wisdom, his connection of jazz to the ground, his search for the “universal tempo” in tune with nature, and his spirit of freedom, qu he also transmits to Warmack the spirit of resistance and revolt.
The characterizations in “Passing Through” are kept tight, as the behind-the-scenes drama of plotting action and revenge is kept to a minimum. Clark tears through dramatic surfaces to reveal the underlying essence of jazz as a crucial embodiment of the black experience – and as a crucial form for its transmission, from generation to generation. It is revealed to be a kind of cover realism, whose sense of psychological realism is inseparable from its idea of historical and conceptual realism. His drama (he wrote the screenplay with Ted Lange) carries the enormous weight of ideas and experiences that defy representation and turn into austere and moving symbols. This symbolic intensity finds another historical form in Clark’s 1973 featurette, “As Above, So Below” (showing today and Sunday), a harshly realistic political fantasy centered on a young black man named Jita-Hadi (also played by Nathaniel Taylor), a veteran of the Vietnam War and counterinsurgency in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, who lives in Los Angeles as the city is under siege.
A militant group carried out a series of kidnappings and martial law was declared – only in predominantly black neighborhoods – as part of plans to imprison millions of black Americans in detention centers. Amid the tension in the city, Jita-Hadi bursts into a small cafe run by a black woman (Lyvonne Walder) who expresses boundless optimism on behalf of her Christian faith, and where a black man (Billy Middleton) expresses deep gratitude to white people for its modest comfort. There, Jita-Hadi meets a mysterious woman (Gail Peters) who takes their meeting for a moment of deja vu; Without giving away too much of the plot, let’s just say that Jita-Hadi’s visit to the odd little cafe leads him into the heart of the uprising and underpins it with a confident view of revolutionary secrecy and strategy.
Here too, Clark puts the story first. It does this first by showing Jita-Hadi as a child in Chicago in 1945 as he learns about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, then through documentary footage of the US military intervention. in the Dominican Republic, in 1965. Clark also stages an extraordinary sequence, in a black-fronted church, in which a preacher (Bob Ogburn) delivers an ecstatic sermon of overly optimistic – amounting to a fervent appeal for donations – reminiscent of an absolute classic, the mute by Oscar Micheaux. 1925 film “Body and Soul”, in which Paul Robeson plays a false preacher with dastardly intentions. In “As Above, So Below,” Clark shines a light not on faith as such, but on a joyful prosperity gospel as a dangerous enemy of political conscience. Here too, Clark puts a romantic connection at the center of the struggle; here too, he composes stark and striking images to merge this struggle with an aesthetic ideal.