Film Forum

Some jazz films you might enjoy ahead of festival opener ‘Django’

I’ve written before about how Fresno Filmworks fans love movies about music, so it seems fitting that our 13th annual festival would open with an acclaimed movie about music that also opened the 2017 Berlinale.

French actor Reda Kateb plays Django Reinhardt in the 2017 Fresno Film Festival opening night film, “Django.” (Photo: Under the Milky Way)

2017 Fresno Film Festival begins Nov. 10 with “Django,” a wartime bio pic centered on jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. The film focuses on the brief and tumultuous period that Reinhardt, who was born of Manouche Romani ethnic origin in Belgium, spent escaping the Nazis in France during World War II. The film features striking new full-length renditions of some of Reinhardt’s best-known works, as performed by French actor Reda Kateb, as the famed guitarist uses his musicianship to escape death.

In anticipation of “Django” — and with the John Coltrane documentary “Chasing Trane” just in the rearview, after Filmworks screened it this past May — here is a trio of recent movies and a classic ’90s indie film about jazz musicians that you might also enjoy.

“Miles Ahead” (2015)
Don Cheadle directs and stars in this immersive bio pic, which brims with the drug-fueled, canted-angle bravado of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis late in his career. The film not only features a standout performance from first-time director Cheadle, it also includes a classic turn from actor Ewan McGregor as a ’70s rock-and-roll sleazebag posing as a music reporter.

“What Happened, Miss Simone?” (2015)
Documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus mixes previously unreleased archival footage with new interviews to paint a complex portrait of a complex musician, Nina Simone. The high priestess of soul’s inspiring activism during the Civil Rights movement takes center stage as much as her virtuoso singing, composing, and piano playing.

“Bessie” (2015)
Queen Latifah luminously plays the empress of the blues, Bessie Smith, in this glossy bio pic from writer/director Dee Rees. While Bessie influenced countless jazz singers with her style, the film’s glimpse at Bessie’s contemporary and the mother of the blues, Ma Rainey (played by singer/actress Mo’Nique) steals the show.

“Mo’ Better Blues” (1990)
This classic Spike Lee joint — the director’s fourth feature film in less than five years out of NYU film school — crackles with the fresh jazz of a young Branford Marsalis and a young Terence Blanchard. Actor Denzel Washington portrays the fictional trumpeter Bleek Gilliam with great precision, an over-the-top stylistic nod to fame-obsessed jazz musicians.

Jefferson Beavers serves as development director for Fresno Filmworks.

Every second Friday of the month, Fresno Filmworks screens first-run independent and international movies at the historic Tower Theatre.