Sven Klang’s Combo/ Sven Klangs kvintett (1976)
Barbican Cinema 2. 12 November 2023. EFG LJF. Film review by John L. Walters)
Sven Klang’s Combo (aka Sven Klangs kvintett, 1976) is one of the most revealing and satisfying movies about jazz you are likely to see. Set in small-town Sweden in the late 1950s, it dramatises the seductive and perplexing intensity of jazz through the eyes and ears of the oddly matched individuals who play in a semi-pro dance band. Along the way, the film familiarises us with the venues that hire them and the unsophisticated audiences to whom they perform.
The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (Kent Persson) captures a time – between the death of Charlie Parker and the emergence of the ‘New Thing’ – when modern jazz (Monk, Miles, Mingus, Jazz Messengers, Rollins, etc.) was contemporaneous with James Dean movies, Elvis, Jailhouse Rock and 1940s standards re-vamped as pop.
The rehearsal scenes set in front of a proscenium arch stage (complete with painted rural backdrop) hint at the script’s origins in a play devised and toured by left-wing theatre ensemble Musikteatergruppen Oktober. Director Stellan Olsson opened out the production just enough to make an unforgettable cinematic experience, while retaining the intimacy of a small ensemble cast that acts and plays music with complete naturalness.
For a sequence in a rural hall, the fixed camera shows the band strike up in front of an empty floor that steadily fills up with dancing couples. At another venue, the camera slowly dollies back from a close view of the quintet while dancers move into view until they fill the frame, obscuring the musicians. A wedding is shot from the band’s point of view – we hear them but don’t see them until they take a break.
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As with Jack Gelber’s The Connection, another play about jazz that was turned into a compelling black-and-white film (by director Shirley Clarke), the pleasure in Sven Klang’s Combo is in seeing the way the actors transition easily from talking to playing and singing and back again – their flawed personalities are conveyed as much by the way they play their instruments as their acting. The story quickly establishes the characters’ differing degrees of commitment to (and engagement with) music.
Leader Sven Klang (Anders Granström) is a narcissistic bully with a superficially avuncular attitude towards his much younger bandmates. Ever-smiling, confident and mediocre, his sexual exploitation of Gunnel (Eva Remaeus), the teenage singer he ‘discovered’, drives the plot. Drummer Kennet (Henric Holmberg), who seems to ‘get’ jazz, has the long face and comic timing of a young Stan Laurel; pianist Rolf (Jan Lindell) has natural ability, but is a born lightweight; he likes playing music, he says, but he likes playing tennis, too.
The central character is saxophonist Lasse (Christer Boustedt), a genuinely gifted musician who has used his national service time in an army band to perfect his technique. Lasse’s hard-won but almost otherworldly ability to play genuine jazz inspires, scares and challenges the band members in different ways. His presence throws into sharp relief the difference between playing music because you must, and for any other reason. At the core of Sven Klang’s Combo is the time-honoured clash between life and art, and the sacrifices necessary to even consider becoming a serious artist, yet there’s also a simple, more universal story about being young and attempting to deal with the grown-up world.
The film’s coda, set in the 1970s, shows four of the quintet looking back at their time in the combo. In his introduction for the London Jazz Festival screening, curator and filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht spoke of the way jazz musicians see themselves reflected in the film’s characters, and compared the Swedish movie favourably to Hollywood biopics such as Young Man with a Horn and Clint Eastwood’s Bird, in which we have to suspend our disbelief that an A-list actor (Kirk Douglas, Forrest Whittaker) can play when their facial muscles prove they are miming to an off-screen recording of a real musician.
For me, the achievement of Sven Klang’s Combo is that actor / musician Boustedt is completely believable as the conflicted, charismatic and talented Lasse. The way he unpacks his alto, the conscientious way he performs and occasionally transcends the Combo’s hackneyed repertoire, the studied seriousness of an approach that makes it hard for him to conform and accept things as they are. A musical highlight is his unaccompanied cadenza at the end of ‘Over The Rainbow’; the others’ reactions create a nicely comic moment, yet it’s deeply touching. Lasse is not On The Road’s Dean Moriarty or Steely Dan’s ‘Deacon Blues’, but a more subtle kind of rebel, with a natural nonconformity that’s rooted in craft, self-discipline and an understanding of jazz that his fellow musicians will never have or even desire. For Lasse, that’s both his triumph and his tragedy.