Reda Kateb (as Django Reinhardt) and
Cecile de France (as Louise de Clerk)
VIEW FROM THE INSIDE
BY RANDY FREEDMAN
WHERE GYPSY JAZZ BEGINS
Django is a 2017 motion picture that depicts some of the exploits and adventures of legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt ,(portrayed by actor. Reda Kateb), during his escape from German occupied France in 1943. It was directed by Etienne Comar and written by Comar, Alexis Salatko and others. Cornar is perhaps best known as one of the writers of 2010's Of Gods and Men which dramatized the story of Christian monks, who gave their lives in a show of resistance against terrorism. A biographical film about a jazz musician might seem an odd choice to continue this theme with. But, Comar asks us to believe that Reinhardt's defining moments were not as much as a musician on the stages of Paris, as in a shadowy, makeshift, gypsy caravan covertly traveling along the Swiss border of France.
The film begins in occupied Paris in June 1943, with the guitar player, already famous, desperately trying to get himself out of Nazi-controlled France. Django director Etienne Comar refuses to accept the usual, self-imposed limitations that directors of biopics seem to place on themselves by obliging their viewers expectations. When this is done, either intentionally or unintentionally it adds a since of predictability to a film. Comar's film, less of a biopic and more of a wartime photograph, spares us the shopworn scenes familiar to the genre. Don’t expect to see young Reinhardt go through the paces of strumming his first guitar, seducing his first girlfriend, or playing at his first gig. Instead Comar zeroes in on the mature Reinhardt attempting to survive the Reich.
When a thoughtlessly drunk Reinhardt turns up for a concert with his Quintette du Hot Club de Paris, before an audience heavy with German army personnel, he seems to be oblivious to the brutal effects of the Occupation on France’s Gypsy population. Reinhardt regards the war as ‘gadjo’ (non-Gypsy) business and blithely continues to ride the wave of his success, with the prospect of future lucrative command performances in Germany still before him. Warned of the prospective dangers of this by his sometime mistress, glamorous and fashionable Louise de Clerk (Cécile de France, who is quite likeable, despite seeming less than totally invested in her own performance.) Reinhardt eventually leaves for eastern France with wife Naguine (Bea Palya) and mother Negros (an engagingly cantankerous performance by BimBam Merstein), hoping eventually to cross to freedom in Switzerland. Then he is persuaded to play a concert for local Nazi officials, as a distraction for the smuggling of a British pilot. But Reinhardt finds a new closeness to the Gypsy community, whose suffering results in his composing a serious classical work, ‘Requiem for the Gypsy Brothers’, a reconstructed version of which closes the film.
Comar establishes the stakes immediately, with a striking, and haunting sequence of Roma musicians playing beguiling melodies in the French woods as they are systematically hunted down and brutally executed. Reinhardt, publicly well known, even at the time of the war's beginnings, hoped that his fame could temporarily protect him and his family. However, when the bombs begin to fall overhead, he quickly realizes his need to escape like everyone else. The end titles state starkly what those first film moments made almost seem dreamlike. The Nazis were responsible for the death of 600,000 gypsies. Comar’s narrative finds Reinhardt himself continually butting up against the Reich and gradually developing the hope, that maybe he can successfully devote some of his fame and talents to saving a few of his people.
So Django becomes (at least in part) a suspense thriller. A cloak-and-dagger-and-guitar adventure with individual scenes, that sometimes are excitingly suspenseful, if not necessarily true to actual events. Instead, they demonstrate the way Reinhardt’s universally appealing and joyous music challenged fascism artistically and actually inspired the Resistance. Django expresses, via the language of film genre, not what necessarily Reinhardt’s life was, but what it might have felt like.
In that, Comar has a strong partner in Kateb, who spent a year learning guitar enough to appear to be actually playing in the excellent, extended concert sequences that the film highlights. Kateb’s fingers fly, but his face, often seen in the same camera shot, remains alluringly aloof. His Reinhardt, projects a protective indifference. Kateb wears a poker face, not letting on what he’s noticed or what he cares about. That’s the key to the coolness that Reinhardt embodied and to the spy craft that Django attributes to him. Even when an ally credits our hero for standing up against the Nazis, Kateb’s Reinhardt shrugs off any appearance of heroism: “They killed my monkey,” he says, as if that explains both his artistry and courage
Django deserves praise for introducing most viewers to both the musician and to the plight of the Romani people during World War II. It may lack vitality whenever Reinhardt's fingers aren't dancing across guitar strings but it comes alive in the moments when they are. Unfortunately, these moments are not frequent enough to keep audiences engaged for long and the film does tend to drag in parts.
When Django explores how no artist can totally insulate themselves from politics or the iniquities of the world, it is a very persuasive film. I found myself mulling over how musicians, artists, and filmmakers of today should be interpreting and best, most effectively, reacting to our current stormy political environment. Unfortunately, I did not arrive at any compelling insights or come to any grand conclusions that I can share with you. Except, never, ever, kill another man's monkey.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.