Friday, 3 July 2009

Paris Blues (1961)

While this film has its fans and also has a number of good things going for it, it is not, on reflection, that great a movie. Partly this is because it has dated rather badly. In its attempt to capture the feel of the so-called "beat generation", every line of dialogue seems to include the word "man" and there are endless scenes of enraptured fans crowding a night club and swooning to the jazz.

Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier play expatriate musicians in Paris. Newman is there because he lives and breathes music and thinks it is the best environment for him to develop as a composer. Poitier, while also an able performer, has chosen to live there to escape the daily humiliations of racial prejudice back home. Into their lives come two American tourists on a two-week holiday in Paris, white Joanne Woodward in her fourth co-starring role with her husband and black Diahann Carroll. Once they pair off into the accepted colour lines --- Newman originally making a play for Carroll -- they all fall in love to moody black and white shots of a Paris sorely bereft of the usual tourist attractions. Woodward has to be the sexual aggressor to get Newman ensnared, but this is explained away by making her a divorcee with two young kids (and therefore an 'experienced' woman). The crunch comes when they try to convince their lovers to return home with them: Can Newman forsake his musical destiny? Can Poitier face up to and fight against discrimation?

The movie's music credentials are pretty remarkable with Duke Ellington in charge of the score which features a number of his standards. There is also an unnecessary role for Louis Armstrong as a visiting celebrity; this adds little to the story, but it does afford one great jazz battle between his players and Newman's. And it is always a pleasure watching the great Satchmo.

The final plot thread concerns Newman trying to wean gypsy guitarist Serge Reggiani off hard drugs before he loses his talent, but this is something of an afterthought since no other drugtaking, which was an intrinsic part of the beat scene, is shown. The players here only seem to get high on music.
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