Django [2017]
directed by Étienne Comar
ByTowne Cinema (August 4-10, 2017)

To modern ears, gypsy jazz (aka jazz manouche) sounds as fresh as when guitarist and composer Django Reinhardt first invented it. Rooted in the exotic music he learned growing up in gypsy caravans, and then reinvented through the American jazz of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, his music was, by the late 1930s, hugely popular in France and England.

And no wonder! The combination of Reinhardt on guitar and Stéphane Grappelli on violin was intense and compelling, and Reinhardt's compositions like “Minor Swing” became immediate and memorable classics. Whether live or on recordings, the music of their Quintette du Hot Club de France grabbed their audiences with its all-encompassing swing and drive. You can see and hear that energy at the beginning of this film, with an extended recreation of a Paris concert by the quintet.

That's a real strength of this film: it never loses sight of the fact that music was the essence of Django Reinhardt and the core of his life. At one point, he's asked, “Do you know music?”, and replies, “No, but music knows me!”

To Django, music and his family and friends were what mattered – certainly not outside politics. As far as he was concerned, World War II was a gjado war – not a concern of himself or his fellow Roma (gypsies). Perhaps he was unwilling to recognize the evil, perhaps he was naïve, or perhaps he felt he had more important things to think about.

But in France and in Europe in the late 1930s and 1940s, one didn't have that choice. To have the wrong ancestry, or to play jazz or swing – that put one on the wrong side of the Nazi conquerors. And that could very well be deadly.

For the Nazis and their French collaborators, the Roma were an “alien race” in Europe, just like the Jews. From 1936 onwards, the Nazis steadily deprived the Roma of their rights as citizens in Germany, and then started moving them into concentration camps and killing them en masse. Although figures are difficult to come by, it is estimated that about one-quarter of Roma were exterminated by Nazis and their partners during World War II.

On top of that, the Nazis considered jazz and swing degenerate Negermusik ("Negro Music"), and put strong restrictions on how it could be played. In the film, we're shown “No Dancing” signs in the concert halls, and Django is told they cannot play non-Aryan instruments such as the cowbell, and that no more than 20% of their music could be swing.

Django is set in 1943, with the Nazis having overrun Europe and France being ruled by the Vichy collaborators. Paris has become the Nazi's “whorehouse”, as one German character notes in the film, and more is tolerated there than in the rest of France.

Which is what has kept the members of Django's quintet alive and performing – the popularity of their music, even with German soldiers. Otherwise, they might have suffered the same fate as many of their relatives.

When war was declared, the Hot Club was in the middle of a British tour. Django and several other band members left in a panic for France, thinking that it would be safer there. Grappelli, on the other hand, remained in England for the duration of the war. During that time, his place in the quintet was taken by clarinetist Hubert Rostaing.

Paradoxically, Django and his quintet flourished during the war, because of the public's craving for swing. He continued to write, composing some of his most popular jazz melodies such as “Nuages”, but also (as is shown in the movie), branching into larger-scale classical pieces as well, including a Mass.

He made the minimum accommodations necessary to continue performing. But as we're shown right at the beginning of the film – when he has to be dragged away from fishing to come play a major concert – he wasn't a man who would be led or controlled. Mostly, he ignored the war, and the Nazi restrictions.

As the film opens, Django is finding these tactics aren't working any more. With the Nazis trying to force him to tour Germany and with increasing dangers facing him and his Roma relatives, he has to take action.

Django is played by actor Reda Kateb, who captures Django's insouciance very well – as well as his musical curiosity and intensity. And his lack of tolerance for fools or hero-worshipers: when asked “What was [Duke] Ellington like?”, he has a one-word response: “Black”.

Also particularly memorable is Bimbam Merstein, playing his mother Negros Reinhardt with zest and determination.

The music in the film was performed by the Rosenberg Trio from Holland, one of the foremost gypsy jazz groups in the world, who have been playing their interpretations of Django's music for more than 25 years. Their love for the music and their skill were central to this film.

The sound – both the music and the incidental sound – was clear and compelling. And I was particularly impressed by the cinematography, including many scenes set at night and inside with just enough light to expose what was happening.

Did the events in this film actually happen? In general yes, according to Michael Dregni's biography of Django Reinhardt – although it's perhaps telling that they only occupy 4 pages of that 319-page book. Perhaps it would also have been more believable if the film had told the full story of what happened to Django and his family, instead of aping previous escape-from-the-Nazis thrillers. But concentrating on that period was a reasonable choice: it was an important moral turning point for Django, as he faced a problem common to many of those caught in Occupied Europe. What could one do to survive while not surrendering to the Nazi regime?

This movie is well worth seeing for the music, and the vivid picture it provides of Occupied France during World War II. Well-paced and acted, it's a great introduction to Django Reinhardt and his musical legacy and a complement to hearing this music performed live today.

Read other articles on about musicians performing gypsy jazz:

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