Saturday, August 13, 2022

Learn to Swim, on Netflix

It is always frustrating to watch a film about a talented but self-destructive jazz musician. Unfortunately, anyone who has read several jazz biographies knows the premise is not entirely unrealistic. It is still hard to see Dezi drive away his ex-lover and his former bandmates in Thyrone Tommy’s Learn to Swim, which opens today in Brooklyn and releases on Netflix this Monday.

Dezi really has the chops. So do his friends. That is why Selma often sits in with them, even though she is signed to a record label, whereas they are unsigned. Unfortunately, one of his choppers is causing him a lot of pain (but apparently not one that would impact his embouchure, which is sort of a break). Nevertheless, Dezi prefers to shun human company, so he can revel in his pain and misery by himself.

During the course of the film, Tommy and co-screenwriter Marni Van Dyk constantly flashback, to show why Dezi withdrew into himself. Frankly, the more we learn, the less we sympathize with him. In some ways, you could read
Learn to Swim (a title that must have woefully frustrated the film’s publicist and marketers) as a jazz riff on A Star is Born, but Selma isn’t even “jazz-famous” yet. Tommy and Van Dyk do not end it the same way either.

One thing they did right is the music, featuring original compositions by Chester Hansen & Leland Whitty of BadBadNotGood. It sounds legit, especially for a struggling group that was raised on contemporary music genres (there is an electric bass in their combo), but still embraces the hardbop tradition. It also helps a lot that lead actor Thomas Antony Olajide already knew how to play the saxophone (Tommy even switched his character’s instrument, to capitalize on that muscle memory), while real deal musicians like Aubrey McGhee recorded the performances heard during the film.

However, Emma Ferreira (already an exhibited visual artist with celebrity collectors) is the standout for her performance as Selma. She nicely conveys the singer’s complications and artistic temperament, as well as showing off a nice singing voice. The question is why she puts ups with Dezi’s passive aggressive belittling.

Regardless, Tommy is clearly familiar with the Toronto jazz scene, filming scenes in venues like the Emmett Ray.
Learn to Swim definitely reflects the realities of the jazz life, unfortunately, often in the worst ways. Also, the expressionistic stylization of the flashbacks frequently causes confusion. Still, the music is great, particularly Hansen & Whitty’s originals.

Fundamentally, there is a sadness undermining Tommy’s film that perfectly taps into jazz’s blues roots. It is an acutely sensitive film that definitely understands the music it portrays. However, it would be nice to see a film sometime about a happy, well-adjusted jazz musician—at least just once. Recommended for the music and Ferreira,
Learn to Swim opens today (8/13) in Brooklyn, at the Stuart Cinema & Café and premieres on Netflix this coming Monday (8/15).