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CinemaDope: Stage and Screen

A piece of jazz history

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Thursday, April 05, 2012
Photo Courtesy of the Weinstein Company
Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes star in the film adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus

A small fact about me that you probably don't know: I was born and raised in Newport, Rhode Island. Reared on our state beverage of coffee milk (a sweet, milky concoction that bears little resemblance to either of those things), I grew up surrounded by salt air and quiet winters. Summers, though, always meant life: the town's population would double as college students and summer vacationers thronged the narrow, one-way streets, both sets drinking too much and soaking up as much island life as they could before the heat gave out. And that always meant music.

Mostly, that translated to so-so covers of Top 40 music drifting out of the bars downtown on Thames Street, or some regional reggae band playing on the beach. But in the early 1980s, the town welcomed back a prodigal son: the Newport Jazz Festival, founded in 1954. The earliest performances were held in the same park that hosted my high school football games. A decade later, it had outgrown the venue; a decade after that, it was gone—a rift with the town ended with the festival moving to New York for most of the 1970s.

By the time it returned, jazz was no longer the popular force it once had been. (These days, its sister show, the Newport Folk Festival, is a bigger draw.) Luckily for fans, those early years live on in Jazz On A Summer's Day, director Bert Stern's documentary look at the 1958 show. Featuring a who's who from the pantheon of jazz—Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and Anita O'Day are just a few of the greats caught on film here—Stern's work is one of the very best presentations of jazz as a communal enterprise, one that bonds not only musician to musician, but also musicians to listeners. And while I'm probably a bit biased, I can hardly think of a better place to have that connection made than in a park in Newport, with the sun going down and the breeze coming in off the water.

For a look at what made it so special, stop by Amherst Cinema on Monday, April 9, when Stern's documentary screens at 7 p.m. as part of the Joy of Sax Film Series. Presented by the theater along with New England Public Radio and the UMass Fine Arts Center, the film will be introduced by WFCR "Jazz à la Mode" host Tom Reney. Moviegoers will also be treated to a short live concert before the screening.

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Also this week at Amherst: Ralph Fiennes—who presumably has some free time on his hands with the Harry Potter series having wrapped—directs and stars in the Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus. Recast as a modern-day military tale, the story remains that of Caius Martius, the Roman leader who fights an enemy (Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius) that he perhaps resembles more than he does the fellow Romans he has pledged to protect. When his military victories lead him to higher offices, his admiration of his enemy and his disdain for his own countrymen lead to disaster. Expelled from Rome, the fallen general takes up with Aufidius to lash out at the country that disowned him. Fiennes is as electric as ever—Voldemort has nothing on Caius Martius.

Over at Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton, the Midnight Movie series continues with Attack The Block, a 2011 British import from the producers of Shaun of the Dead. In this sci-fi action comedy, a gang of teenagers living in a South London housing block confront an alien invasion that interrupts one of their muggings. Like the producers' earlier film, this one places as much weight on being entertaining as it does on the action, with good results.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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