Exploring British jazz scenes and gay blues: Miami Jewish Film Festival 2021

The curious have two days until the end of the Miami Jewish Film Festival. I wrote about two other screenings, one of which I had some involvement. The best part for the interested: you pay a donation of your choice instead of a flat admission fee to stream a movie.

Ronnie’s (dir. Oliver Murray).

For Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Van Morrison, among others, a stop at Ronnie’s was an essential part of touring. Oliver Murray’s documentary explains how an excellent saxophonist in his own right named Ronnie Scott, taking a chance in the late 1950s, opened a jazz club in London’s Soho district. The concert footage woven into the narrative ranges from excellent to outstanding; from the plaintive strains of Oscar Peterson’s piano in its opening sequence to the infamous set by War’s Eric Burdon and guitar mage Jimi Hendrix a day before Hendrix’s death, Ronnie‘s is the rare documentary that conjures a time so well the audience can smell the cigarette smoke yet doesn’t get dopey about the past.

Also unsaid: the joy of hosting these performances compensated for the rigors of keeping open this club as tastes changed. During the High Thatcher years Island Records scion Chris Blackwell steps in with a crucial donation. Murray doesn’t shirk from Scott’s depression and problems with alcohol, in part connected to the inherent tension between being a musician and hosting musicians of genius (the film mentions Scott’s “destructive” self-effacement). Things looked shaky after Scott’s death in Christmas 1996, but partner Pete King kept at it for almost a decade. But what a past. Clips of Dizzy Gillespie playing “Manteca” and Morrison singing “Send in the Clowns” help in warding off soul death.

I interviewed Oliver Scott last month about Ronnie Scott, his club, and the English jazz scene.

Sublet (dir. Eytan Fox).

Niv Nissim is by far the best thing about Sublet. This Tel Aviv native plays Tomer, an avant-garde horror filmmaker from whom New York Times travel writer Michael (The Normal Heart‘s John Benjamin Hickey) sublets his apartment while he spends five days writing up his adventures in the bustling, glimmering metropolis. A mixture of earnestness and defiance, Tomer treats Michael as if it were his first time talking to a man over thirty. He listens so intently to Michael that he’s alert to what he thinks are the gaps between what Michael says and what he is. “Then you’re not really intrepid?” Tomer counters after his new tenant has described his life as a fiftysomething gay man whose companion is more eager about adopting a child from a surrogate than he is.

Audiences familiar with the work of Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger, The Bubble) can expect the autumnal rue that turns his films into pleasant stillborn affairs. Tomer introduces Michael to the tastes and smells of Tel Aviv, including the tastes and smells of online pickups, the mechanics and ease of which at first repel then fascinate Michael, one of Sublet‘s many small irritations. This man, who wrote a book on the early plague years, has never been in a AOL chat rooms? Using Grindr for hookups is like “ordering a pizza.” Well, yeah. And placing classified ads for sex in 1991 was like ordering a dinette set from the Sears catalog. But the rangy, expertly coiffed Nissim makes us feel his curiosity; this NYT writer dresses like an NYT writer, and he wants to figure him out. There are the requisite experiences on molly, a train trip to visit Tomer’s mom; there is the treacly score, the close-ups of Michael’s haunted expression when he sees a child. The ending is sweet, benefiting from its inevitability. Minor pleasures include cinematographer Daniel Miller’s rendering of Tel Aviv into a golden city of youth and beaches and dance companies and excellent cheap food and wine.

Film critic Ruben Rosario speaks to director Eytan Fox and star Niv Nissim about the film here.

4 thoughts on “Exploring British jazz scenes and gay blues: Miami Jewish Film Festival 2021

  1. Great review and interview Alfred. Enjoyed the documentary too when it was shown on BBC Television in November last year.

    1. Thanks, Rog. I usually don’t go in for this sort of thing, but the archival footage fascinated me.

  2. Yes, the archival footage was revelatory. Amazing how he got clearance for them. I’d be interested to see his subsequent work. I’ll have to check out his first documentary called The Quiet One about Bill Wyman.

    There is a great film of Ella Fitzgerald- Live At Ronnie Scott’s (1974) on you tube that was filmed by the BBC which seems to be the source of the Ella footage. A brief glimpse of Ronnie introducing Ella at the beginning of the film

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