Paris Blues

Classic Music Film out on Blu-ray

Jul. 11, 2014
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Paris Blues is one of the greatest Hollywood jazz movies—and one of the best films ever about the American expatriate experience in Paris (back before the city became a museum of memories for tourists). The 1961 gem (out on Blu-ray) stars Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as bandmates with a steady gig in a jazz cellar whose multi-racial crowd is rapt as the musicians execute their changes. Newman and Poitier look convincing; their recognizable stardom doesn’t eclipse but enhance the characters they play.

Race is an acknowledged subtheme with the idea of jazz—and the expat life—as an escape from racism. Eddie (Poitier) is bitter. “Who needs it?” he says of the U.S., the land where he could be clubbed for sitting at the wrong end of a segregated lunch counter. In those years France was still relatively innocent of American-style racism and was famous for welcoming black artists and intellectuals. The scourge of heroin is not ignored. Ram (Newman) has to buy drugs from the pusher, an old woman lurking in the alley behind the club, for his thoroughly hooked Gypsy guitarist (doing a Django Reinhart on the instrument).

The score for Paris Blues is by Duke Ellington, and the film features an unusual performance by Louis Armstrong. Sachmo plays a truer version of himself than normally seen in Hollywood. Mobbed (in a forecast of Beatlemania-style adulation) at the Paris train station, he’s a joyful spirit but with no need for any shuck’n’jive. Filmed in luminous black and white, with the ambient grit of its setting unconcealed, Paris Blues is an artifact from an era when jazz was still integral to popular culture with no dependence on grants or institutions for survival.


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