"Syncopation" Makes Interesting Noise But Says Very Little Review

Seems to me I've heard that tune before.

Start with drums.  That's how Syncopation (1942) begins, with an African drum thumping while a slaver counts his money over a box of chains.  That's a hell of an opening for a film about the origins of Jazz and has to be the bravest moment in film up to that point.  Nobody saw it, nobody's heard of it, and if I'm honest it's a better idea than a movie, but what an idea.  As I sit in my apartment, listening to Massive Attack's Heligoland, I wonder if a film could ever capture an evolution in music in the manner William Dieterle attempted in Syncopation.  What Dieterle had to work with in 1942 pales in comparison to where Jazz was going in the 50's and 60's with Miles Davis, Coltrane, drugs, pain, and its speedy decline in popularity.  For that story, we're left with nonfiction and Ken Burns' Jazz (2000), though its critical reception may suggest there's room for another voice.

Syncopation's ambition is delicious.  Create a fictional tale centered on a few individuals, some from New Orleans, some Chicago, following them from the turn of the century into the 1930's and the breakout of swing music all in under ninety minutes.  George Latimer (Adolphe Menjou) is a New Orleans architect who loves his city, but has to leave to make real money up in Chicago, bringing along his young, piano-playing daughter Kit (Bonita Granville) in tow.  Once there, Kit meets up with Johnny (Jackie Cooper), a struggling musician who shares her passion for jazz music.  Over the years, the two, along with their friends, try to spread the love of the "hot stuff" to the white squares who don't know what dance music is.  As you may be familiar, they eventually meet with some success.

The plot is pretty light, but it had to be.  To service every moment of jazz over thirty years would be insufferable and overwhelming, but keeping the framework small and specific allows the music to breathe with thematic repetition.  The script from Phillip Yordan and Frank Cavett, while loaded with tolerable poetic waxing on music, is filled with the charm common in the great films of that period.  So, whatever your love of jazz, there's something lovely for classic film fans.

The film ends with a big (and non sequitor) musical number from the All American Dance Band including Benny Goodman and a lot of people who are no longer famous.  It is, perhaps, ironic that the film ends this way because all the members of the aforementioned band are white.  We don't get any cameos from Count Bassey, Duke Ellington, or Louis Armstrong.  There's another piece of the film that appeared to be a backhanded slap at George Gershwin and his symphonic jazz.  These are curiosities that, along with its unique place as a musical epic, one would expect a legion of fans or commentators who could provide the context and history of this film.  The distributor, the Cohen Film Collection, falls down in this respect.  It's jam-packed with obscure musical shorts, but nary a comment is provided.

Bonus features

Nine short jazz films (with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and others) and the trailer for the re-release.

"Syncopation" is on sale February 10, 2015 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by William Dieterle. Written by Phillip Yordan, Frank Cavett. Starring Adolphe Menjou.

Jason Ratigan • Staff Writer

A lawyer-turned-something-else with a strong appreciation for film and television.  He knows he can't read every great book ever written, but seeing every good movie ever made is absolutely doable.  Check out his other stuff on Wordpress.


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