Great musical documentaries are far and few between. While many capture live performances with astonishing technical skill, these films typically offer little or no context for viewers. Sprinkled with sporadic interviews and narration that is often skin deep, they are vivid, richly entertaining records of concerts, but rarely more than that.
A handful, however, rise to a higher level. Legendary films like “Don’t Look Back,” “Company,” “Buena Vista Social Club” and “20 Feet from Stardom,” to name a few, dig deeper. Along with electrifying performances they take us behind the scenes, illuminating an artist's struggle to create and the landscape where it all takes place. “Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past,” a film released this week on DVD by First Run Features, belongs in this elite class.
Directed and produced by Amber Edwards and Dave Davidson, it tells the story of a gifted musician, scholar, recording artist and preservationist who is single-handedly carrying the torch for hot American jazz and swing music from the 1920's and 1930's, an art form in danger of disappearing. The film juxtaposes Giordano’s thankless, often heartbreaking struggles to keep his band together--and his sanity intact--with extended moments of pure musical joy.
For those lucky enough to catch Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks on Monday and Tuesday nights at Manhattan’s Iguana Club, it’s an exhilarating trip back in time, a musical feast serving up songs by Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong and other giants. Close your eyes, and you’re transported. Open them wide and you’re sitting at a table in a packed little club, less than ten feet away as Giordano’s tuxedo-clad band blows the roof off with breakneck stomps from the Roaring 20's.
We’re talking about an unforgettable live experience. But for those who can’t make it into Manhattan, Edwards and Davidson’s documentary is a richly satisfying alternative that puts you in the heart of the action.
Along with eye-popping musical numbers--"Shake That Thing" is a particular standout—the filmmakers tell the story of a Brooklyn kid who got hooked at the age of five on American pop music from an earlier era. Thanks to his grandmother's still-functioning Victrola, Giordano listened to vintage 78's, learned to play the violin, tuba, bass saxophone and string bass, and soon became a voracious collector of recordings and sheet music.
He studied with great mentors, including Bill Challis, the renowned arranger for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and was eventually invited by pianist extraordinaire Dick Hyman to play on Woody Allen soundtracks. In 1976, Giordano formed his band and began the arduous task of preserving, recording and performing historic American music in a mercilessly commercial marketplace.
The good news is that Giordano, 65, has become Hollywood's go-to guy when it comes to soundtrack recordings of music from the 20's and 30's. You may have seen or heard him performing on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," in films by Allen as well as "The Aviator," "The Cotton Club," "The Good Shepherd" and “Carol,” on "Prairie Home Companion" and elsewhere. Critics have showered him with superlatives, but the moniker that fits best is "The King of Schlep."
"There's a Future in the Past," filmed over the course of three years, shows us the grim economic realities facing Giordano every day: He packs heavy musical equipment into a van, traveling from gig to gig, then sets it up and packs it away again, without the help of a roadie. He's a one-man band, managing, publicizing and shepherding his musicians with the aid of Carol Hughes, his devoted companion. One minute he's smiling on camera, wowing a crowd. The next minute he's exhausted, frustrated and stressed out. The grind never ends.
Viewers may wonder how he does it, but by the end of the film they know why he does it. Giordano comes alive in the moments when he's electrifying an audience. It's the fuel that keeps him going. Never mind that he needs a more stable club gig, a place where he can store his equipment. Forget that the cost of traveling with so many musicians is prohibitive, making it tough to play gigs beyond the tri-state area. The glow emanating from the stage is worth it all, and the film offers a glimmer of hope in a scene at the end that it's not about to die out:
During a Big Apple gig, Giordano and The Nighthawks deliver a turbo-charged set. But they're not alone. A parade of younger musicians--all inspired by his work--also take the stage. They're smitten with this tradition and carry it on with flair. Giordano's music is "joy sauce," says one. And the bandleader, in a thank you to the audience, is thrilled.
"You really like this music," Giordano says, with gratitude. As will anyone else who watches this documentary. So what are you waiting for? Get off the sofa, pick up this DVD--and shake that thing.