Tuesday, February 10, 2009

CUNY: Sweet Love, Bitter

His name is Eagle and he plays the alto saxophone. Does that sound like any real-life jazz musician? A musical titan with a drug habit approaching the superhuman, Ritchie “The Eagle” Stokes is indeed patterned after bebop innovator Charlie “Bird” Parker in Herbert Danska’s Sweet Love, Bitter, one of the better cinematic treatments of the jazz life, which screens this week on CUNY’s City Cinematheque.

The parallels between Stokes and Parker are even greater in John A. Williams’ novel Night Song, on which Danska’s film is based. At one point we meet a former Stokes sideman who has made good in a big way. With his flashy car and elegant clothing, it hardly seems a stretch to consider Miles Davis the inspiration for the character named Yards Brown.

While his ex-sideman might be on the way up, Stokes is bottoming out, both in Williams’ novel and Danska’s film. However, he is not alone. Mourning the death of his wife, former college professor David Hillary’s goal is to literally drink himself to death. To facilitate this plan, he hocks his wedding ring, but in the process meets an African-American man pawning his sax.

As a fan of jazz in general, and Stokes in particular, Hillary is all too willing to let the Eagle show him the ropes of binge-drinking for the down-and-out set. A quick learner, he and Eagle are nearly whisked off to the drunk-tank, but for the intercession of Keel, Stokes’ self-appointed minder.

The African-American Keel hires the depressed white professor to work in his downtown coffee-house, setting up an unusual racial dynamic for 1967. Further complicating their relationship, Hillary finds himself attracted to Della, Keel’s white lover. In between pointed comments about race, Hillary and Keel try to corral the self-destructive Eagle, often finding him at the home of Candy, a white admirer seemingly inspired by the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the jazz patron at whose home the real Parker died. (Bitter however, seems to posit a presumably fictional sexual aspect to their relationship.)

In his first screen role, Dick Gregory looks scarily dissipated as Stokes. Though Eagle can be playful, Gregory plays it straight, creating quite a tragic portrait. Also making his screen debut, Robert Hooks (the original Mr. T in Trouble Man) brings legitimate intensity to a standout supporting performance. However, though Don Murray’s Hillary is supposed to be a fish out of water, his stiffness seems excessively wooden at times.

Music is critical to a film about tortured musical genius, and in this case Bitter delivers the goods. Jazz pianist Mal Waldron’s moody bop soundtrack perfectly fits its characters, with George Coleman eloquently ghosting Eagle’s alto. Bitter was Waldron’s second film score, but it would be his first soundtrack album. While he composed themes for Shirley Clarke’s Cool World and is heard performing them with Dizzy Gillespie in the actual film, Gillespie would record the soundtrack album with his regular working group, including Kenny Barron in the piano chair.

Bitter is a jazz film that gets the jazz right. It hasn’t always worked out that way. Danska’s sympathetic direction and Waldron’s passionate music make the film work even for the most discriminating jazz audiences. It screens on CUNY-TV 75 at 9:00 this Saturday and Sunday. While it seems like most of City Cinematheque’s post-screening commentators are more miss than hit, Danska, who should have plenty of insight to offer, will discuss the film with the program host.