Jazz on Screen: Ten Great Movies About Jazz

The personal stories of the jazz greats are often just as exciting, entertaining and emotional as the music they created. In this article, we’ll look at some of the best movies about jazz, from documentaries and biopics to fictional films.

From the early days of bebop, jazz has intrigued artists from across various creative disciplines.

Poets, painters and dancers have taken the language of jazz and attempted to fuse it with the principles of their own art-form. For example, the iconic beat poet Jack Kerouac famously stated that he wished to be considered a “jazz poet”.

Jazz music and its sometimes tortured musicians have long been a fascination of film directors and writers, perhaps more so than any other art form. With countless themes to explore from race, identity and discrimination to sex, drugs and hedonism, jazz has been the subject of numerous classic films, many of which are included in this list.

So, let’s get straight to it! Here are ten of the best depictions of jazz on screen for those new to the genre as well as the seasoned fan.

10. Bird (1988)

Clint Eastwood’s love for jazz has long been known. An early example is his 1971 classic Play Misty for Me, where a late-night jazz DJ – played by Eastwood himself – takes a stroll through the real-life Monterey jazz festival.

His passion for jazz pioneer Charlie ‘YardBird’ Parker culminated in this 1988 biography.

While assisting in the release of the documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, Clint Eastwood was also busy working on Bird. The 1988 Charlie Parker biopic featured Forest Whitaker as the talented and infamously disturbed saxman.

Although the project took years to develop, Eastwood eventually succeeded in providing a captivating window into the all-too-brief life and career of the jazz giant.

There’s no denying Eastwood’s unabashed love for the project or the fascinating results onscreen. A breakthrough role for Forrest Whitaker, the actor earned critical acclaim for his role in the film and a Best Actor award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.

The film traverses through several stages of his life. Parker comes across as an intelligent, eloquent artist who suffered from poor luck and self-destructive behaviour.

Bird’s death at the age of 34 was heartbreaking, but Eastwood brings him back to life in the soundtrack by isolating his solos and letting modern artists re-record the backing. The result is one of the best movies about jazz and an excellent introduction to the life and work of one of jazz music’s most influential figures.

9. Chico & Rita (2010)

Is it possible for an animated film to do justice to the enigmatic art of jazz? ‘Chico & Rita’ which was nominated for an Oscar Nomination, answers the question for us.

This animated love story follows jazz musician Chico and vocalist Rita as they follow their musical dreams while navigating a rocky romance from Havana to New York, Hollywood and Paris.

The film, which is partially based on the life of Cuban artist Bebo Valdes, brilliantly depicts the fusion of American jazz and Cuban music.

Aside from the bright animation, which features Nat King Cole, Chano Pozo, Dizzy Gillespie and others, the music alone is reason enough to check out this cartoon gem which features music from Arturo O’Farrill, Jimmy Heath and Valdes himself on piano.

8. Jazz On A Summer’s Day

This special documentary from Bert Stern depicts the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, bringing one of the most exciting periods in jazz history to the screen.

The Newport Jazz Festival is up there among the most iconic jazz festivals in the world, with many classic live albums being recorded at the event. It has hosted an extraordinary lineup of jazz greats since its exception in 1954.

The film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, shot during the festival’s 1958 edition, only captures a small portion of the many notable musicians that have performed at the festival, but it’s nonetheless stunning.

Photographer Bert Stern beautifully captures an all-star group that includes jazz singer Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, and Thelonious Monk.

Stern perfectly meshes the concert footage with exquisite photography of the festival surroundings.

Now is a good time to search for the film as a newly restored version has recently been released. Since being inducted into the United States National Film Registry, it has received critical acclaim and is no regarded as one of the greatest non-fiction movies about jazz.

7. Miles Ahead (2015)

Miles Ahead is a hugely entertaining and unconventional character study of Miles Davis. It was co-written and by Don Cheadle who also took on the role of the film’s protagonist.

As the unstable and irascible Davis, Cheadle’s raspy delivery is uncanny. He perfectly encapsulates the musician who at the time in which the movie is set had withdrawn from the world, suffering from drug addiction and chronic hip pain.

In the film, Davis is gathering new material as he seeks to make a return to music. Music writer Ewan MacGregor shows up just as some of Davis’ valuable tapes are stolen. The unlikely pair set out on a nail-biting pursuit for the recordings during which the unstable jazz trumpeter recalls his love affair with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi); a dancer who influenced some of his finest works.

Cheadle’s movie is fast-paced, loose and melancholy; much like the music of Davis. Purists may be offended by Cheadle’s creative liberty, but Miles Davis – somewhat a patron saint of experimenting – is likely to have forgiven the historical inaccuracies.

6. Whiplash (2014)

While some jazz purists (and artists in general) have expressed dissatisfaction with how Whiplash depicts the world of professional music, it’s undeniably one of the few films that attempt to delve into the pressures and competitiveness of jazz education.

It’s very well-acted, with J.K. Simmons’ blazing portrayal as borderline insane music instructor Terence Fletcher earning him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. And, of course, it has a terrific soundtrack.

The breakout film from Damien Chazelle depicts a teenage drummer (Miles Teller) at a prestigious New York conservatory who is tutored by a demanding music teacher (JK Simmons) who has all the sympathy of Full Metal Jacket’s drill sergeant.

The movie explores aspirations, obsession, musical ideology, and the barbarity and sacrifice that is involved in ‘making it’. Chazelle decided to write the film partly because of his frustration with not getting La La Land off the ground.

The musical sequences are exhilarating and vital to the story and teach the audience. Both Simmons and Teller provide superb performances (for which Simmons earned a well-deserved Academy Award). Despite its criticisms from musicians, it is certainly one of the best recent movies about jazz and well worth checking out!

5. Round Midnight (1986)

It sometimes takes an observer to shed light on what’s going on inside another culture. That is the case with the 1984 film ‘Round Midnight’ – one of the most outstanding feature movies about jazz ever shot.

‘Round Midnight’, directed and co-written by Bertrand Tavernier, conveys the sorrow of a jazz musician’s existence as well as the unparalleled joys of performing on stage.

Every shot of ‘Round Midnight’ demonstrates director Bertrand Tavernier’s attention to detail and genuine passion for jazz culture. It tells a classic story which has received critical acclaim in the succeeding decades.

Bernard Tavernier’s love letter to jazz explores the French adoration for the American art form.

Dexter Gordon stars as alcoholic saxophonist Dale Turner, who has washed up in Paris to play a club gig while battling his drinking addiction. Turner sets out on a halting journey towards recovery and redemption after being befriended by Francis (François Cluzet), a fan who idolises Turner.

Tavernier’s ardent devotion to jazz is reflected by Francis’ rash passion, as he meticulously recreates a romanticised 1950s Paris.

The fact that jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon plays the tormented protagonist is part of the film’s beauty. Another jazz legend, Herbie Hancock earned an Academy Award for his original score for the film, which takes on a life of its own when listened to as a standalone record.

Turner is given tremendous realism by real-life jazz icon Gordon, who is joined by several other real-life jazz players in supporting roles.

4. Young Man with a Horn (1950)

This Hollywood creation is based on the true biography of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and starred Kirk Douglas in his breakthrough role. Beiderbecke is one of the first in a long line of jazz musicians with a tragic story – he died at the age of 28 of complications from drinking.

Kirk Douglas, who died in February 2020 at the age of 103, gave one of the most believable and captivating portrayals of a jazz musician ever seen on film. You can sense his character’s infatuation with music and see the price he pays for it.

Kirk is accompanied by an excellent cast, with Doris Day, Lauren Bacall and legendary songwriter-pianist Hoagy Carmichael all featuring alongside the Hollywood great.

The film is regarded as one of the first Hollywood portrayals of a tormented musical genius. The music has been labelled “the essential spirit of the picture” by The New York Times, as Douglas’ trumpeting is dubbed by the playing of Harry James, one of the most notable bandleaders of the era.

The music is entirely authentic, ranging from Dixieland to big band music. Although the ending of Curtiz’s picture is criticised, the film is well-worth checking out if you’re looking for great movies about jazz.

3. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Although it may not be Spike Lee’s best film, Mo’ Better features Denzel Washington in one of his most memorable roles. The legendary George Washington portrays fictional bandleader Bleek Gilliam, a formidable talent who struggles to keep his life in order.

Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, a historical jazz musical drama, came after the success of his 1989 classic Do the Right Thing.

Lee used the music and tensions of a bygone age to transmit a handful of unchangeable truths about art, business and the pursuit of a goal. He was aided by a great cast that included Denzel Washington as a troubled yet talented trumpeter and Wesley Snipes as his arrogant saxophonist.

The late Roger Ebert praised ‘Mo’ Better Blues’ which starred Lee as a foolish gambling manager, Snipes as an attention-grabbing sideman, and a soundtrack by the Branford Marsalis Quartet starring jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Spike Lee’s unique direction and the film’s incredible soundtrack make this one of the best movies about jazz and a great introduction to the music.

2. Kansas City (1996)

Robert Altman was raised in Kansas City and had direct knowledge of the city’s legendary jazz clubs of the 1930s, including the Hey Hay Club and others. Both sights and sounds of the city’s early 20th-century jazz culture serve as the setting for an admittedly pedestrian crime thriller.

It’s one of filmmaker Altman’s lesser-known films and although not among his best, there are plenty of joys to be had in the consistently excellent cast and music, which features modern jazz artists reproducing old tracks under the direction of legendary producer Hal Wilner.

With an unexpected sense of danger, Harry Belafonte plays the gangster Seldom Seen, while jazz legends such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Ben Webster are depicted amongst the backdrop to an abduction plot.

It’s the many references to Kansas City’s legendary jazz culture that gives the film its life.

1. The Cotton Club (1984)

This 1984 gem is Francis Ford Coppola’s tribute to The Cotton Club, one of Harlem’s most legendary jazz venues.

Coppola’s film is an enjoyable crime thriller with New York’s jazz scene acting as the backdrop. Richard Gere features in the starring role as a trumpeter who falls for the female companion of a local gangster.

Gregory Hines appears alongside Gere as the talented dancer Sandman.

Meanwhile, we see Cab Calloway and a host of iconic actors amidst the drama and the violence. The whole is glorious to look at and well worth seeking out despite its failure at the box office.

An “encore” version of this crime thriller based in the 1930s Harlem jazz scene was produced in 2019 by Coppola. The new version focuses more on the Black artists’ experiences, including tap-dancing segments featuring brother duo Gregory and Maurice Hines, which were deleted due to pressure from investors.

Which great movies about jazz would you include in this list? Let us know in the comments!

Want to discover more about the musicians mentioned in this list? Head over to our article on the best Miles Davis albums or check out our introduction to the legendary Dexter Gordon.

2 thoughts on “Jazz on Screen: Ten Great Movies About Jazz”

  1. Hi Matt,
    Very good article on jazz movies, thank you. It provides good material for my next radio show on Salon Saturday where I talk about wine, music, film and other aspects of culture. I will be acknowledging the source, of course.


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