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Jazz movies tend to come in bunches, and Soul is the fourth high-profile example from the last six years. Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) were both directed by Damian Chazelle, and Green Book (2018) was directed by Peter Farrelly. The academy likes these movies—they all won major awards—but jazz musicians were horrified. Surrounded by your glory what will my heart feel poster
Whiplash is a sports movie. Sports movies by definition do not honor imperfection, and the cheesy score offers the worst kind of “perfectly played” college band sound. It’s also blindingly white in aesthetic, which might be fine if the plot didn’t concern jazz drums. All the very greatest jazz drummers have been African American, and the movie’s relentless erasure of African American musical values is a major faux pas. (In another couple of decades, Whiplash may be relegated to that same “let’s forget we did this” file where Song of the South currently resides.)
La La Land is a musical. Musicals by definition require cheerful choreography and unsophisticated melodies. This wonderful genre has a liminal place in serious American culture. For jazz, the standard tunes from musicals offer some of the best innocent source material: We still know certain songs from very old white-bread musicals simply because Miles Davis or John Coltrane injected them with soul. But musicals that are soulful to begin with are rare. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton works fine as a musical—but doesn’t satisfy serious hip-hop fans. The rhythmic profile and production qualities of most of the songs are just too basic. La La Land works as a musical, too—but the soundtrack could drive a serious jazz fan to drink.
Green Book was based on true-life events concerning Don Shirley, a sophisticated musician who worked between genres. There was a lot of controversy about this movie, and Shirley’s real life musical path disappeared in the discourse. Don Shirley was just about the least soulful pianist making jazz records in the 50s. Shirley’s ideals were firmly rooted in European concert music; he had little desire to muss up harmony or lay into the groove. This set of values gave him a unique sound, but that unique Shirley aesthetic proved to be rather obdurate source material for a story investigating 1960 American race relations from the vantage point of 2018. At the climax of Green Book, Shirley sits in with all–African American bar band and plays the blues. Could the real-life Shirley have done this? Maybe, but probably not. (Fortunately, the musician in charge of the score to Green Book, Kris Bowers, is another professional of soul, and gave that blues session the requisite attributes for success onscreen.)