Rightfully enshrined in the National Film Registry last year, Bert Stern's 1959 film Jazz On A Summer's Day offers precisely what its title promises and nothing more. But it doesn't need to. Best known as a still photographer—his work on the poster for Kubrick's Lolita is as famous as anything in the film itself—Stern's only attempt at filmmaking is this concert film constructed from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Originally intended as an experimental narrative set against the backdrop of the festival, Stern wisely abandoned that plan early on, deciding simply to shoot the festival itself. Taking place at the same time as the America's Cup, Jazz still subtly conveys some of the points Stern's love story would have played up, particularly the economic differences between the music's origins and Newport's wealthy citizens. For the most part, however, Stern sticks to filming the festival's performances as intimately as possible. These include stirring daytime shows by Anita O'Day, Thelonious Monk, and a spectacular, if out-of-place, Chuck Berry. Title aside, Jazz On A Summer's Day—actually shot over the course of a weekend—somehow improves when night falls. Using long takes and close-ups framed as if he were shooting portraits, Stern captures the intense concentration of Chico Hamilton and the playfulness of Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington (who attempts to help her percussionist with his solo), and films Mahalia Jackson singing to a crowd of grateful sinners backlit by what looks like the light of heaven. If there's a flaw, it's brevity: Offset by this impressive DVD version's supplemental materials, including a documentary on Stern, the film's 84-minute running time can be at least partly attributed to the acts Stern didn't have the permission or inclination to film. It's better not to think of some of the performances lost, including the classic late-'50s lineup of the Miles Davis Quintet, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington, and others. As it is, Jazz bounds from strength to strength, stylishly immortalizing transcendently beautiful music on a glorious day, suggesting in the process that film might have no higher purpose.
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