BIX: “ain’t none of them play like him yet”
(Restoration Screening and Q&A/Interview. Film Forum, NYC. 6 August 2021. Review by Dan Bergsagel)
“The world is full of eminent musicians deserving of documentaries,” German-Canadian film-maker Brigitte Berman explained on Friday night 6 August, the 90th anniversary of the death of Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke. “But to make a documentary you need to be ready to commit four years of your life working on – and working with – that musician.” Bix, it is easy to see, is a subject worthy of the time investment: Bix combined a mysterious image, an underdog’s rise, and a tragic fall into his short 28 years. Originally made and released in 1981, forty years on Berman is still dedicating time to this labour of love, presenting a remastered, restored and digitised version of the film to a contemporary audience.
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As a high-achieving musician celebrated by his contemporaries, Bix’s mystery draws from the minimal documentation that exists. There are the records he cut, and an archival parade of staged band photos, but there is precious little video footage of him playing, and no print or recorded interviews. His underdog story begins as a naturally gifted musician who couldn’t read music, learning to play from listening to the bands on the boats coming down to the Mississippi river levee in Davenport, Iowa, and bargaining to buy a used cornet from his friend Fritz Putzier. He is thrown out of a string of schools and universities across the Midwest, but via Chicago, Detroit and a slew of Great Lakes resorts, eventually finds himself an indispensable prized soloist with the best band in the country, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
The driving energy in his life was to play, and it was both the source of his success and his undoing. Even the stories recounted by his friends with the most joy reveal tragedy at their core: of musical scores of bandmates which have “Wake up Bix” scrawled on them at key moments, or of his madcap attempts not to miss a gig. Running late one morning, Bix boarded the wrong train, and to avoid missing that evening’s gig chartered a private plane at great expense to make it to the right town on time. Having then arrived at the hotel before the rest of the band, he took a quick rest and slept through the whole thing.
This desire to play, literally at any cost (in this instance $107 in 1920s money), tracked through in how he spent his time between concerts: welcoming visitors and admirers into his rooms, playing at any invitation, and staying up all night drinking and jamming in the speakeasies. The role of his alcoholism, dependence and attempted rehabilitation grows throughout the film as interviewees’ discreet references to gin and ‘feeling under the weather’ accumulate. The film’s subtitle is a quote from contemporary cornetist and admirer Louis Armstrong, however his most revealing insight is in describing the toll this life took on Bix: “they crowded him too much with love”, and that “Bix died of everything”.
As with all the finest documentaries, a razor focus on one story shines light on a world of other things. Through the film BIX, Berman tells the story of the rise of jazz as a new popular music on the boats up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Chicago, and the influence of radio broadcasting on moving the home of jazz to New York City.
We see the raucous highs of the Roaring 20s and Prohibition and the era of trains, and the constant friction of racial segregation in the jazz bands and venues. There are the slick haircuts, suits and uniforms of the band photos of the 1910s and 20s, as well as the sartorial time capsule of the late 70s, all eye-watering neck ties and scarves matching patterned shirts, bold blazers, upholstery and pearls. While a strong historic document, many narratives of Bix are timeless. The unforgiving lifestyle of a travelling musician and the job insecurity of the Great Depression seem particularly relevant this last year; the tension between commercial success and pure intellectual endeavours pulls creatives in a multitude of industries.
Brigitte Berman’s documentary itself tells its own story of the balance between commercialism and critically acclaimed art. Described by Film Forum’s repertory director Bruce Goldstein as “the best film ever made about a jazz musician”, in the Q&A following the film, esteemed audience members queued to stand and share praise, a film with “no baloney”, of “great humanity”. Goldstein quips that you can tell it’s a Bix evening just by the hats in the lobby, and the sense of an invested tight-knit eccentric community shone through in the urgent questions, impassioned requests for uncut footage and unused archive photos, and enthusiastic panellists so wrapped up in Bix fervour that they continuously talk over the director to share their thoughts.
At the time of its initial release Bix was very well received, and from this screening it is clear to see why. Richard Basehart’s narration is familiar and authoritative, old archive photos are brought to life with a minimal treatment of movement and music. Tangible connections are forged across half a century with the presentation of fresh-faced musician’s photos before we cut to their more wearied interviewed faces. The feeling of music and a musician from a lost time are conveyed through photos of barely recognisable city skylines, dusty abandoned resorts and dilapidated cavernous ballrooms with even more cavernous holes in their roofs. Considering Bix made a career playing 8 and 16 bar snippets, BIX is a comparatively concise and charismatic film conjured from precious limited sources.
Yet the real strength of the documentary is in the interviews. What we see in the film are moments of real openness, clear admiration, and the occasional fought-back tear. The candour and trust in which people speak is testament to Berman’s interview technique, and the time she invested to earn the trust of Bix’s friends to the point where any initial hesitancy – about Bix’s personality and alcoholism being misrepresented – was cast aside. Their fondness shines through, particularly in conversation with the born storyteller Hoagy Carmichael or long-time close-working jazz arranger Bill Challis. Compared to some music documentaries, most of the other musicians interviewed recount memories, and carefully listen to recordings, but do not themselves play. This makes the moments that they do play stand out even stronger. Spiegle Willcox’s emotional trombone accompaniment to a Bix record shines, but it is bandleader and pianist Charlie Davis’s memorised rendition of an undocumented Bix composition Clouds which hits hardest.
Berman’s production of BIX turned out to be a timely intervention. Musicians do not live forever, and while Bing Crosby died two months before she started work, Hoagy Carmichael passed away a year later. Her work on this restoration was equally timely, with the quality of the original cut beginning to deteriorate. In this new release she has digitised the original 16mm films, tweaked the editing with Oren Edenson, and upgraded the sound with Daniel Pellerin and today’s technological bells and whistles.
Speaking with Berman before the screening, she recalled being proud of the film when it was released, and even prouder of it today. For her it has been a journey, one which started with a young folk music fan being introduced to an obscure cornetist’s work by a boyfriend in the Toronto record stores, Bix’s musical approach cutting through. In the same way Bob Dylan or Joan Baez spoke directly to Berman, the emotion, the vulnerability, the way Bix appeared to reveal everything through his playing, made a lasting impression.
This same impression is what motivates Berman today: at the time of the original release she was already too busy with the next project and unable to dedicate time to promote the film. It had a very limited international release, but has been largely unavailable since, becoming a critically acclaimed and mysteriously elusive masterpiece. Like Bix himself, Berman was appreciated by her peers but missed out on the commercial success. This time, Berman is ready to share the restored version with the world with the aim of introducing a new generation to Bix’s life and music.
BIX: “ain’t none of them play like him yet” is screening at Film Forum until 19 August 19, and planning on a wider distribution soon.
LINK: BIX at Film Forum NYC
Categories: Film reviews