Cinema has enjoyed a long fascination with jazz, including two of this season’s award winners that feature jazz-heavy soundtracks to complement their passionate, problematic protagonists. The exploration of jazz is something that has long served cinema, providing the backdrop to numerous seedy New York scenes and New Orleans hot spots, and it is a genre of music that has entered into a wide cultural pool, no longer the specific expression of one group.
Perhaps, one of the reasons for its longevity in film is that jazz is a prime companion for those who rest a little unhinged. In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation(1972), Gene Hackman stars as an independent surveillance contractor who stalks, records and distributes the conversations of others under the direction of a third party who rewards his deed with a healthy imbursement. Hackman’s character is nervy, paranoid, and somewhat disgusted by his profession, refusing to share any details of his day job to his lover, out of fear of judgement, or, potentially, fear of others watching his life in return; he attempts to remain as aloof as possible. The taught thriller closes with the uptight Harry Caul (Hackman) unravelling, desperately seeking solace in one particular object: his saxophone.
His ability to play jazz – an energetic, at times ferocious genre – seems to defuse the situation and place barrier of noise between himself and the building catastrophes happening on the other end of the phone line.
For Birdman and Whiplash, Jazz is similarly integral in the directors’ exploration of the protagonists’ psyche.
Andrew is a first-year jazz drummer at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory music school in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, who takes the pursuit of excellence to the extreme, discarding every possible distraction; from the gentle rumblings of an initial relationship with a pretty, but not too driven girl, to his relationship with his father, whose eternal support appears to disinterest Andrew, who instead craves the cruel jeers of his music teacher.
Fletcher, a picture of rigidity in an all black ensemble made up of black trousers and a crew-neck t-shirt that constricts his baleful biceps, a seeming promise of violence waiting to burst. J. K. Simmons delivers a dangerous, menacing and Oscar-winning performance that tantalisingly hints at splinters of warmth; a performance reminiscent of his Oz days as the loathsome Vern Schillinger.
In band practise, a phalanx of musicians wait for Fletcher to conduct them according to his rigid interpretation, amongst them Andrew tries to assert himself as a student with the potential for excellence, albeit timidly. In a world where the most harmful two worlds in the English language are ‘good job’, it’s no surprise that Andrew is so keen to commit to perfection.
Excellence isn’t far from Riggan’s mind in Birdman, a character whose claim to fame is via a costumed superhero. He’s searching for a legitimate project to test his acting chops and prove his worth to a particularly ferocious critic and, most pertinently, banish his demons.
The feverish jazz drumming that seems to stalk Riggan adds to a greater sense of unease, setting him up as a manic individual unable to conform to a set melody. In both Whiplash and Birdman, jazz music is used to add discomfort and ensure that audience remains tense throughout the picture.
One final thought: given that jazz emerged within African American communities, it seems to me that perhaps Birdman and Whiplash with their jazz-heavy scores and white male leads have unintentionally fueled the fire in the ongoing unease about the appropriation of black music in white culture. I have two problems with this sentiment in the case of these two films; firstly, Whiplash’s plot revolves around jazz music, it isn’t merely sound design that aids the story, essentially it is the story and the director/writer was writing of his own experiences, there is really no argument to say that he cannot or should not write about it; secondly, for Birdman, there really is no other music that would have evoked the same sense of mental jauntiness and unbalance. Filmmakers can and should express their stories however they please, but, it seems that once again black voices are being marginalised and we are popularising aspects of that culture without allowing spaces for a variety of voices.
The most powerful rebuttal to the absence of representation for black voices in the Academy Award nominations was Common and John Legend’s refusal to be silenced, they delivered a powerful rendition of Glory from Selma, a film with a notable lack of nominations at the Academy Awards, that made everyone from Oprah to David Oyelowo to Chris Pine cry (you can see Pine tearing up below)