Jazz '34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing
Caught this at MoMA today, and wow, was it enjoyable, moreso than the actual film Kansas City.
Hal Willner was there to introduce, and boy did he have a lot of anecdotes. Just to keep things focused on this film alone, Altman was trying to make this for a while, and previous musical consultants had dropped out, which is how he wound up working on the film. He handpicked the players from all over the jazz and r&b world, which created some on-set tension as the musical sensibilities of these individuals at odds with one another. Some quit early on, but things seemed to calm down once they saw themselves on screen.
They filmed a LOT of footage of these characters playing. Willner claimed that dailies would run for 6 hours a night, possibly an exaggeration but I don't doubt they shot a lot of footage given that there were multiple cameras (Willner claims five) and if they caught every minute of these extended jam sessions.
Each player was also assigned a real life character to emulate - Redman is obviously the Prez, Lester Young, and emulates his style beautifully, and Craig Handy is presumably Coleman Hawkins. In general, the entire group seems to be loosely based on the great Count Basie band of the late '30s, with some notable additions. (Notably, someone in the audience was very enthusiastic whenever bassist Ron Carter popped up.)
Outside of some added voice-overs to link numbers, this may be called a well-edited outtakes collection. I think all of these numbers appear in the film, but usually in severely truncated form. Having them cut together in their entirety is wondrous as these are all amazing players and it's even more entertaining to 1) hear them play together - as mentioned these guys don't typically play together, but they gel incredibly well because 2) they are also "acting" through their music, emulating an era and style they are not known for playing - at least 90% of the time, there are instances where I feel like they stray a bit from the '30s towards something more modern, but even these moments fit wonderfully.
I'm not sure how this film was originally distributed - I was under the impression it was broadcast on PBS - but they screened an actual 35mm print. It was a little beat up and scratched, and due to this film's obscure reputation, I doubt they will strike any more prints. Curiously, they didn't make this print from original 35mm footage - there are occasional artifacts that clearly give it away as a video transfer. Basically, this footage was shot in 35mm, eventually made into a broadcast-quality video master (I'm guessing BetaSP?) and then dubbed back on to 35mm film. This may have been for archival purposes, but regardless, if someone ever reissues this, I hope they go back to the original camera negatives and make a new transfer.