Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Margaret Mead ’13: As Time Goes By in Shanghai

Jazz musicians are forward-looking by temperament, constantly anticipating the next gig or recording. For a group of elderly Chinese swing musicians who endured the Cultural Revolution, living in the here-and-now rather than the past is not merely an aesthetic choice, it is a survival strategy. The Peace Old Jazz Band is Guinness-certified as the oldest continually performing band and they will finally have their spotlight moment in Uli Gaulke’s As Time Goes By in Shanghai (trailer here) which screens during the 2013 Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.

When five out of six band members are nicknamed “Old” (as in “Old Sun” or “Old Li”), it is pretty clear what you’ve got here.  For the last twenty years, they have hit nightly at Shanghai’s Peace Hotel, following in the grand tradition of the big bands of the Swing Era.  Accustomed to playing for dancers, most of the band is not inclined to start experimenting now. They might sound like “moldy figs,” but they have a right to stick to their thing.  After all, the Cultural Revolution was a living nightmare for any musician performing decadent jazz and Western classical music.

When booked to play the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, the Peace Old recruits a younger vocalist to perform standards as well as a few jazz renditions of traditional Chinese songs.  Naturally, they shamelessly flirt with Yin “Yasmin” Chen—we would worry about them if they didn’t.  Clearly, this gig will be a career zenith for the band, but they seem to take it in stride.

At first, As Time Goes By seems to be another documentary chronicling the late life triumphs of a group of plucky oldsters.  However, it progressively deepens over time.  The Peace Old musicians are understandably reluctant to talk about their experiences during the Cultural Revolution (after all, it never officially happened), but when Gaulke catches them alone, they start to open up and when they do it is heavy.

Frankly, the Peace Old’s technique is just kind of okay overall, but Holy Cats, do they play with feeling.  While it is difficult for them to talk about their experiences verbally, it all comes out through their instruments.  Gaulke mostly has the good sense to focus on the band and stay out of the way, but his transition shots capture a sense of the less affluent side of go-go Shanghai. The Peace Old can relate to both worlds, but do not quit fit into either.

As Time Goes By is deeply moving, both in musical and personal terms.  It is rare to find a film that speaks so directly to both the gigging life and the residual collective emotional baggage of the Cultural Revolution, but it certainly does.  Gulke’s doc should particularly resonate with working musicians in any major city.  Wonderfully wise and bittersweet, As Time Goes By in Shanghai is very highly recommended.  A highlight of this year’s Margaret Mead Fest, it screens this Saturday (10/19) at the AMNH.