an absolute marvel for jazz fans, may be hit or miss if you're strictly an Altman fan though
I'm not sure if I'd recommend Jazz 34 to many people, but to those I'd choose carefully enough- mostly as jazz enthusiasts- it would be sky-high. This is not so much a documentary so much as a recreation, or rather a documentary done by Robert Altman IF he had 1990s camera equipment in a 1930s Kansas City nightclub. To say that it isn't for all Altman fans shouldn't be ignored, however, as some may go into it expecting some kind of sprawling take on the history of jazz from all the experts or pioneers or whomever, or some other kind of aspect that comes with a quintessential Altman effort. But, to me, this is an Altman film through and through, however just not in the usual way of there being multiple characterizations.
It's got sensational improvisation (as jazz tends to do 99% of the time, especially jazz like this that's sort of a cross-blend of the best of New Orleans and Chicago jazz of the period with its own feel and rhythm), which is practically given in the Altman universe. There's also, in a sense, a full-on characterization of the period itself, with each musician, or nightclub dancer, or bartender/singer with as much human interest through Altman's constantly and carefully roaming and zooming lens as in any of his best work. Jazz 34, as an Altman film, is throbbing and alive by just getting these figures on screen in full period regalia without much in the way of baley-hoo other documentary directors (or music-video directors) might go for. It's also, more than likely, a very personal project- Altman was nine years old at this real-time period- and it shows in his pure affection for everything that's swinging jazz in mid 30s Kansas City.
As for jazz fans, if you can find it it's a must see, at the least for this period of jazz. Although not quite the history lesson that Ken Burns's documentary was, the presentation as being pretty much all musical performances of fabulous old standards by a host of many talented musicians (trumpets, sax, piano especially, drums), is a variation that works to the musicians advantage. There's no 'acting' going on here, aside from the voice-overs that come in-between each song from a person from the period talking about what it was to be in the club or to dance or hear a song played a certain way. And since the director doesn't require them to be anything other than themselves, as players at least, there's no pretension or self-consciousness. As someone who has a few old recordings of 30s KC musicians like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, couldn't be happier with the results. It's a rare find, but if you know already what you're looking for, it's worth it, and even for hard-pressed die-hard Altman fans.
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