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Django Reinhardt

King of Jazz Guitar

(Quantum Leap; US DVD: 30 Oct 2007)

Follow the Bouncing Head

Once in a while you come across something so ludicrous in conception and so utterly artless in execution that you are forced to ask yourself if you are taking seriously what someone else merely intended as a joke. That this film is some kind of put-up job is the only way I can think of to explain the bizarre new release from Quantum Leap Video, Django Reinhardt: King of Jazz Guitar. Written and produced by Jordi Vall Escriu, this “Limited DVD Edition” is a peculiar amalgam of hyperbolic statements dripping with adulation, preposterous editing gimmicks, and empty praise masquerading as biographical narrative.


This two-hour foray into vacuity becomes so tedious that it makes Andy Warhol’s film, Empire, seem comparatively action-packed. Indeed, one is almost reluctant to describe such a film in order to criticize it. Any description, no matter how minutely detailed, could not hope to match the vapidity on display here. Besides, something this horrendous ought to be experienced directly, if only a personal test of one’s endurance.


By the last 30 minutes of the film, one is left wondering what else Escriu could possibly do to make the presentation more risible. Of course, the excerpts from Django’s performances that are featured on the soundtrack almost have the potential to redeem any travesties committed by the film. Almost. The problem is that if you wanted simply to hear Django’s music you would buy a CD (perhaps even one of the five listed in the discography that is included with the DVD as an extra). One purchases a DVD that promotes itself as a biography of a famous jazz musician for the visuals that accompany the music. The visual element of this film leaves much to be desired.


The film seems to have been designed by a group of software engineers whose day job involves working on screen savers. Every time the camera changes images we are treated to some kind of wash effect. The most innocuous example is the typical spiraling wash to replace one shot with another.


A far more irritating use of such effects is when the next image comes in over the previous image in the shape of a ball or a cube and then proceeds to bounce for a while before unfolding to cover the entire screen. The image brings to mind the “follow the bouncing ball” bit but there are no lyrics, just poor Django’s digitally warped face flouncing around the screen. If you think this is just a quirky trick the first time, you will certainly tire of it after the hundredth.


Another favorite comes early in the film. The main shot is of a small city street, ostensibly the location of a street fair. Superimposed on that image is a picture of a very young Django holding a banjo. The photograph bobs up and down, suspended in midair. It pulls away and then sweeps forward toward the viewer like a child wearing a spooky mask. It quickly traverses the ground separating amusing and exasperating.


Another visual element that soon becomes a bad habit for the filmmaker is the tendency to show a hand furiously working its way across the fingerboard of a guitar. Escriu seems not to have thought hiring an actual guitarist to do this was necessary. Thus we hear Django’s dexterous feats of virtuosity on the soundtrack while some random fellow touches each string of a guitar at the 12th fret and then moves on to do the same thing at the 13th fret.


If the visual element of the film seems hopelessly amateurish, the narration is no better. Absurdities abound. We are treated to such improbable statistics as the claim that Django’s composition, “Nuages”, was covered by other artists “an infinite number of times”. We are also told that, after he was severely burned in the fire that engulfed his trailer and reduced his fret hand to only two usable fingers and a thumb, he developed a new manner of performing on the guitar in which he inverted his ninths, sevenths, and eighths. An eighth is an octave and an inverted octave is a unison. Such drivel could only have been written by a non-musician who didn’t bother to look very deeply into the subject.


The extras only exacerbate the problems. The discography is largely pointless (you can find the same information in greater detail on any CD vending website). The mini-essay on the exact make of Django’s guitar is so poorly presented that it retains typographical errors and strikes one as largely beside the point. Most frustrating of all, the DVD includes no indexing. It is all one long, intolerable track. Therefore, even if you were masochistic enough to want to see a particular scene again, you would have to fast forward your way through the program.


Perhaps the most damning thing one could say about this biography is that you probably will not learn anything you couldn’t have gleaned from the liner notes of a Django CD. For a film that so clearly seeks to express its reverence for its subject, the whole affair comes off as rather disrespectful and phony to the core.

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Chadwick lives in New York City and teaches Music History and Theory at The City College of New York. He earned his doctorate in Musicology at Columbia University. He has given papers on topics ranging from 12th Century lament to Duke Ellington and early radio to the use of Wagner's music in Bugs Bunny cartoons. He has published in scholarly journals on the music of John Cage, Richard Strauss, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He has taught courses on music history, the history of rock, and the history of jazz at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Columbia University


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