By TOM D'ANTONI // The legendary photographer and the equally legendary Manhattan loft where the greats came to play.
What they tell us:
In 1957, heralded LIFE Magazine photo essayist W. Eugene Smith moved into an old building in Manhattan’s Flower District. Populated by painters, photographers, and composers, the building became a gathering spot for New York’s best jazz musicians. Through the early 1960s, Smith recorded thousands of hours of music and took thousands of photographs of musicians at the “Jazz Loft,” documenting freewheeling jam sessions with some of the elite of the New York jazz scene, including Thelonious Monk and Hall Overton preparing for Monk’s famed 1959 Town Hall concert.
Smith’s work, at once intimate and epic, offers a unique portrait not only of a legendary scene and era, but an inspirational story of an artist capturing not only the world around him, but to find his place in the world.
What I have to say:
First of all, the long (but not long enough) sequence of Overton and Monk working on the Town Hall Concert is worth the price of admission if you never saw another frame of this film. Everyone knows who Monk was but not a lot of people know who Hall Overton was. This doc gives you a glimpse.
The film is not totally about W. Eugene Smith, although it spends a lot of time on him. But when it dips into the Overton/Monk section, Smith's photos carry the visuals. He is generally regarded as one of the masters of photo-journalism and credited with helping invent the concept of the photo-essay. This has nothing to do with Jazz, except for the fact that Smith loved it and spent years shooting musicians. There are long portions of the film which are not devoted to music, which is ok. The thread is recovered and welcomed.
The doc is a part of a mammoth, ongoing endevour called The Jazz Loft Project built around the thousands of Smith's photographs and hours...years of audio tapes he recorded during the time he had the loft building. He had mics all over the building and recorded virtually everything that went on. He even had a mic in the stairs leading up to the floors above. He recorded phone calls, radio shows and every bit of Jazz. It's no wonder that this documentary barely scratches the surface.
It's a daunting task to make a doc out of all that and sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the volume of material. Imagine how filmmaker Sara Fishko felt trying to deal with it in eighty-eight minutes.