15 July 2024

Film Review – King Of Jazz (1930, The Criterion Collection)

I should really confess my knowledge of Jazz and John Murray Anderson‘s King Of Jazz (1930) is non-existent. The question some may ask: ‘Is it a crime to call yourself a ‘cinefile’ when you’ve had no prior knowledge of the film in question? No.

Some may argue thanks to niche distributors such as The Criterion Collection, we get to appreciate and love releases like this lost treasure. They give preservation, an opportunity to forgotten pieces of cinematic history we should never forget about. They now can be enjoyed for many years to come by old and new generations of film enthusiasts.

To anyone seeing this film for the first time, you’ll probably comment at how dated it looks. To really respect King Of Jazz, you have to understand the era it was released. In its day, films with talking actors were in its infancy and you have to go back three years to 1927 when Al Johnson‘s The Jazz Singer (1927) been the first talkie. It was a brave new world of possibilities, a terrifying prospect to those who dared to walk in its shadow.

King Of Jazz is a spectacular song and dance revue lost and gathering dust on the shelves of Universal Studios. Now rediscovered and saved from extinction all thanks to The Criterion Collection, restored to its radiant two-strip technicolour.

Created in the early days of talking films and film musicals. It was a technically ambitious film for its time. Extravagant, electrifying film starring the band leader perfectly matched for the film, the celebrated Paul Whiteman.

The King Of Jazz fuelled its magic from the Broadway variety shows of its time. A Vaudeville array of wonderful sketches, quips, performances (overseen by Whiteman)including a rare look at young soon to be a legendary crooner, Bing Crosby.

King Of Jazz may never be considered by some critics as one of the great film musicals. Whatever your views you have to admire its qualities, ambitions and even its faults. Even a skeptic would find elements of the film irresistible. Every genre has to start somewhere, finding its feet and you could say it has had a big influence. Bobe Fosse may not have created Cabaret (1972) which would mean Baz Luhrmann musicals wouldn’t exist either.

We live in an age were technology/Special effects dictate the outcome of the films we watch on the big screen. There’s always a snobbery, arrogance when you compare old films to new ones. What this film asks you to do is take a step back and think outside the box before you comment. King Of Jazz was itself technically ahead of its time.

When you listen to the music of the film, calling it ‘Jazz’ is merely a loose term. It’s not Jazz in the way Duke Ellington, Miles Davis or Charlie Parker played. Jazz itself diversified over the decades and many argued if the music was really ‘jazz’, if anything it was symphonic Jazz. The film showcased one of the many evolutionary steps the musical genre had to take. Whiteman’s Jazz was structured arrangements with modern jazz more free from.

Nevertheless, the music is fantastic, many songs have a feelgood quality to them. Others including the humour have a novelty tone to them. A little cheeky, a little nostalgic, most of all a little shocking as many jokes were pre-code. There’s even a cartoon segment which an animated Paul Whiteman goes hunting for a lion in Africa, taming him with his music.

Other standouts are the Betty Boop like singing from Jeanine Young, The Rhythm Boys which included a 27 year old Bing Crosby on the cusp of his glorious stardom. If your a connoisseur of theatrical music this film may go down a treat with two big notable numbers. George Gershwin‘s Rhapsody In Blue with a black make-up performing Jacques Cartier in a voodoo-esque performance. There’s also Happy Feet that will catch your attention and probably have you whistling the song long after the film ends.

Whilst Donald Trump attacks every non-American in the world, maybe he should consider watching The Melting Pot of Music. That should remind him, his great nation was built on the blood, sweat, and tears of many immigrants including his own mother. Though with no Black, Asian, Native Americans can be seen in the segment.

The King Of Jazz is one fascinating film. It is a little clunky (compensating using surviving stills shown over the narration) and dated. However, John Murray Anderson‘s film is very expressive, surreal even avant-garde which was too ahead of time for the naive audience of the day.

Anyone who reads my reviews know I am a firm believer of rating films, for this one I won’t rate it out of respect to it. Many may find faults in The King Of Jazz, equally the warmth of the film might just leave you with one big smile (and ‘Happy Feet’).

Musical, Comedy | USA, 1930 | PG | The Criterion Collection | 9th July 2018 (UK) | Dir.John Murray Anderson | John Boles, Paul Whiteman, Jeanette Loff, Bing Crosby, Jeanine Young | Buy: King Of Jazz [Blu-ray]

Picture & Sound |★★★

Universal Pictures took charge of this restoration and deliver a 4K Digital restoration in 1:33:1 aspect ratio. Presented in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4. Even though this is regarded as ‘Fully Restored’, sadly there is parts of The King Of Jazz were lost. Despite this missing scenes Criterion Collection has delivered a respectful restoration. Not 100% great but when the picture is tested, the majority of the film has stood the test of time. 2 Strip Technicolour actually looks good though very dated and grainy at times, it still looks sharp.

The film is presented in a standard audio track, English LPCM 1.0 with Optional English SDH Subtitles. Any deterioration is masked nicely as the sound is solid, but considering the age of the film, expect fluctuations. Criterion has done a grand job on what they had.

Extras | ★★★

As this film is one that’s mostly known by the hardcore purists, it’s vital Criterion Collection provides extras to give new viewers better insights. They do a strong job and the extras address most of the film from other musicians and historians.

Audio Commentary comes from jazz and film critic Gary Giddens, music and cultural critic Gene Seymour and musician and bandleader Vince Giordano. Giddens has also created a 16 minute new introduction sharing his love for the film. Michael Feinstein a musician interviewed on the film, with 4 decent video essays from David Pierce and James Layton who tackle the question of production and challenges Criterion faced in the restoration. There’s a very good 10 minute promo that goes into Universal’s early days. There are a short film plus 2 Oswald the Lucky Rabbit animations which are nothing special, only there to fill up the Extras gaps.

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