My Favourite Films of 2017

It’s been a pretty awful year in politics, so I find looking back at my year in film is a pleasant diversion.

The following is a list of my current 2017 favourites, but before I go through them, there are a few special film-related highlights to mention:

  • In January I hosted a Q&A with producer Rebecca O’Brien for a Cambridge Film Trust screening of Ken Loach’s wonderful I, Daniel Blake;
  • In February I was privileged to meet the inspirational Christine Molloy: I hosted a Cambridge Arts Picturehouse screening of the film she co-directed with Joe Lawlor, the brilliant Further Beyond;
  • In May, the Filmmaker in Residence at Cambridge Univerity’s Centre for Film and Screen was the world class auteur, Italian director, cinematographer, producer and screenwriter, Gianfranco Rosi. All his films were shown at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse during his residency, with the director taking part in Q&As after each screening. A real treat!;
  • Also in May I was able to facilitate a screening at the Arts Picturehouse of Abbas Kiarostami’s The Traveller, thanks to film critic and curator Ehsan Khoshbakht making the film available. I hosted a Q&A with Ehsan after the screening;
  • In June I attended a superb course run by the Independent Cinema Office – Developing Your Film Festival. I met some fantastic people and was also able to attend the opening night Edinburgh Film Festival gala screening of God’s Own Country;
  • In August we opened our new Screen 2 slot at the local community cinema I help run, Screen St Ives (SSI). The Screen 2 project is being led by my good friend Amanda Randall and myself. We opened with a sell-out screening of Dead Cat. Local director and SSI supporter, the very talented Stefan Georgiou, was in attendance;
  • In September, Screen 2 showed Pablo Giorgelli’s masterpiece Las Acacias, and the director was kind enough to send our little community cinema a personal video introduction to the film from Buenos Aires;
  • In October I was part of the Cambridge Film Festival team. The festival showcased some wonderful new films and restorations, as well as some superb silent films  with live accompaniment (including top musicians Neil Brand, Stephen Horne, and John Sweeney). The festival also gave me the opportunity to meet a director I greatly admire – Bill Morrison. He kindly agreed to a lengthy interview with me (an extract of which was broadcast on local radio film show, Bums on Seats, the full transcript to be published in 2018) before I hosted a Q&A with him after a screening of his superb latest film, Dawson City: Frozen Time.

And so, on to the list itself (ordered alphabetically within each rating):


gods own country

New general releases in 2017




New limited release / festival release / TV / other in 2017


  • Further Beyond [ Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy] (was also shown on Mubi in 2016)
  • Homo Sapiens [Nikolaus Geyrhalter] (was also shown at Cambridge Film Festival in 2016)



Older films which I discovered for the first time




Cambridge Film Festival 2017: Kékszakállú


Below is a slightly edited review of the one published in Take One, both in a festival print magazine  and online.

An outdoor swimming pool and some children take turns to launch themselves from the diving board. One girl hesitates at the edge, frightened, uncertain. Cut.

In Kékszakállú – the enthralling latest film from Argentinian director Gastón Solnicki – this simple scene is simultaneously prosaic and charged. It is a film potent with contradictions: the sparse narrative is loosely structured while the individual scenes have the observational intensity of a documentary; Solnicki’s inspired, beautiful static compositions, are precise while seemingly casual, never ostentatious.

The story which slowly emerges centres on various female characters – some related to each other, some friends, all part of an upper class milieu – who are tentatively finding their way in the world; young people about to enter the confusing world of adulthood. We watch them on holiday, in their families, with friends, and at work. The power of this film is not to be found in the drama of plot development but – another contradiction – the impressionistically realist observation of these characters and our fascination with the unfolding mysteries.

The title Kékszakállú turns out to be as oblique and intriguing as the film itself. It is Hungarian for ‘Bluebeard’ in acknowledgement of Solnicki’s inspiration for the film – Bela Bartok’s one act, two-character, opera, BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE. The director’s own attempts to explain the connections make it hard to see them as anything more than tangential and highly personal. However, one thematic clue that Bartok’s innovative opera may provide is the insistence of Bluebeard’s new wife, the strong and compelling Judith, that her husband open the doors to all the closed rooms in the castle. Kékszakállú also focuses on female characters at the threshold of opening the doors to adulthood, though the the tone of the storytelling in the film has none of the gothic horror that awaits Judith behind some of those forbidden rooms. Indeed, the film is anything but operatic. It is decidedly low-key; an alluring exploration through a maze of seemingly unconnected scenes.

Perhaps a better comparison than BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE is a film by one of Solnicki’s compatriots, the masterful director Lucretia Martel. La Ciénaga (The Swamp) is her unsettlingly, atmospheric depiction of upper class Argentinian’s who are unable to gain satisfaction and fulfillment from the freedoms of their wealth. In the same way that Martel’s way with narrative is more sensitive to the non-sequiturs and ellipses of emotional logic than the mapping of plot points, Kékszakállú finds meaning in the tiniest of details, and revelation in the subtlest of connections.

At the end of Kékszakállú, one of the main characters acts decisively (I shan’t say any more than that). It is typically treated in a matter of fact way, yet it feels momentous and full of potential hope. Kékszakállú is a film which will stay with you long after you’ve left the cinema.

Screen St Ives and a Very Special Screen 2 Opening Event

dead cat

Dead Cat

In August 2017, community cinema Screen St Ives (SSI) launched ‘Screen 2’ – a new specially curated strand which Amanda Randall and myself are leading on – with a special screening of the British romantic comedy, Dead Cat. The local director of the film and good friend of SSI, Stefan Georgiou, came along to introduce the screening. We had a sell-out show and a very enthusiastic and appreciative audience.

In the film notes to the screening, Stefan said:

Dead Cat, it’s a romantic comedy, I swear! I left the NFTS with no money but an abundance of enthusiasm and ambition to make a feature film. I approached my best friend and co-writer Sam Bern and said we had to make one within the year, didn’t matter how much it cost… and so began the next four years of my life. We wanted to tell a story about relationships and friendships set in an authentic London that we grew up in. We cobbled together a budget of £30k, convinced enough cast and crew to go on a journey with us and off we went.

Looking back on Dead Cat, it’s the proudest film I’ve ever made. It’s not perfect but it was made with a lot of heart, from lots of talented people who gave us their time. It really is incredibly humbling to see so many people come together to tell a story we believed in so much. What’s even more incredible is when people watch it and tell you how it moved them; nothing compares to that.

I set my sights on making a film that would get a cinema release, which we didn’t quite reach. However, audiences who watch the film seem to take it into their hearts and it continues to screen at various places, which I guess means Dead Cat touches people on some level and as a storyteller that’s the greatest satisfaction of them all. I really hope you find something you love in the film and apologies for the swearing, if I could go back I’d take out 50% of it, I promise!

Stefan also recommended 3 films to watch:

1. Letter From an Unknown Woman (dir. Max Ophuls, 1948, USA)
“A heartbreaking and strangely uplifting film, its melodrama is matched perfectly by its meticulous and ever-flamboyant lighting and camera movements.”

2. Rififi (dir. Jules Dassin, 1955, France)
“My favourite noir crime movie, about the characters as much as it is about the crime. Often copied but never bettered.”

3. Her (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013, USA)
“One of the most unexpected, heart-breaking stories about falling in love and loneliness – I wish I’d made it.”

Dead Cat Screening-03 August 2017-016

Mike O’Brien, Stefan Georgiou, Amanda Randall. Photo by Chris Boland

You can read Amanda’s review of Dead Cat on her blog, PenPaperAction!.


Special screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s THE TRAVELLER (1974)

The Traveller - 1

This Bank Holiday Monday, 29th May 2017, we have a real treat in Cambridge. The Arts Picturehouse cinema, in conjunction with, is presenting a screening of THE TRAVELLER, the debut feature of the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. The event will take place at 9 pm and tickets are only £5.

Ehsan Khoshbakht, the film critic and curator, will be introducing the film. He says of THE TRAVELLER:

Kiarostami’s first feature film was made for Kanoon (The Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults). It is a suspenseful, witty story of a young boy’s determination to travel from his small town to Tehran to attend a national football match, it combines realism with the economy and precision of a visual artist (the director’s first occupation before turning filmmaker). Featuring brilliant performances by a cast of non-actors, the film has one of the most gripping, unforgettable endings in film history.

In advance of this rare screening, Ehsan kindly agreed to answer some questions about the film and about Kiarostami’s cinema more generally.

Mike O’Brien: What led to Kiarostami making his feature film, The Traveller?

Ehsan Khoshbakht: I guess like any other filmmaker, from his very first short film (made 4 years earlier) he had dreamed of going feature-length. It’s sad that the short films don’t get the same amount of recognition and exposure as the features. And I also guess that he gained the confidence of the institution for which he was making his films (Kanoon), to the extent that they let him make a longer film. Let’s not forget that in between he had made mid-length films, one of which was aptly titled The Experience. So he had gathered that “experience” to embark on creating a more “professional” notion of cinema.

MO’B: Can we see in this early film any of the stylistic and thematic traits that became part of the mature Kiarostami cinema?

EK: Absolutely. It’s almost shocking to see from the very first film he is exactly the Abbas Kiarostami that we know today. All the classic Kiarostami propositions are there from the early 70s, including the journey/odyssey structure, the naturalistic dialogues which are carefully written (and NOT improvised), the real location shooting and the presence of non-actors. You can compare it to Jacques Tati whose early shorts defined his cinematic style and then his first feature, Jour de Fete, was the expansion and extension of those ideas, almost like a longer remake of a short he had made 2 years before Jour, a beautiful film called L’École des facteurs. In that sense, Bread and Alley was Kiarostami’s L’École and out of it The Traveller was born.

MO’B: How was the film received by audiences in pre-revolutionary Iran?

EK: The premiere was at the Tehran Film Festival, which was a prestigious affair and it won a prize there. But after that it probably had a limited release and most likely only in Kanoon centres, which were these beautifully designed art and culture houses for children and young adults. It probably had a wider exposure on TV, both before and after the revolution. I believe it was even shown at the Gijon Children Film Festival in Spain but went completely unnoticed.

MO’B: Did Kiarostami look back favourably in later life on his first feature?

EK: I think he did, even though there were certain things in it which he stopped doing, such as the use of music (the classic and jazz pieces for the last sequence of his films was a different matter), here beautifully composed by Kambiz Roshanravan. The simple fact that up until the late 1980s his films stayed faithful to the cinematic ideas he had explored in The Traveller shows that he must have been satisfied with this stunning debut.

MO’B: This is a very rare screening of The Traveller. A number of Kiarostami’s films are not easily available in the UK. Are there any plans to release these films on Blu-ray or DVD?

EK: Not that I’m aware of. I think it’s quite possible, though, because now there’s lots of interest in his cinema, probably more than ever.

MO’B: Kiarostami passed away last July at the age of 76. What do you think his legacy is to cinema and the arts more generally?

EK: Probably that the greatest pieces of cinema and art (let’s not forget that he was also a photographer, artist and poet) are created from nothing or very small, tiny things. That everything is drama and the smaller the event, the more likely it will resonate with the audience’s personal experiences and emotions. That cinema can be great without massive budgets and an army of technicians at hand. On a more personal note, I think he is the only Iranian filmmaker, with the exception of Sohrab Shahid-Saless, who has managed to fully capture the essence of Iranian life with all its glorious beauty, melancholy, and humour.

You can read Ehsan’s Kiarostami obituary, published by Sight and Sound, here.

When Beckett met Buster and they made Film (updated)

Update: 20 May 2017

Next Monday (22nd) finally sees the release on Blu-ray / DVD of FILM, the collaboration between Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. In addition, the BFI package comes with a new documentary, NOTFILM.

Pamela Hutchinson extolls the riches of this welcome new release in a Silent London post.

While it is a joy to see Film on film, with the whirring projector providing the only soundtrack, it’s a boon to have this work available digitally too, on DVD and Blu, for the enjoyment of connoisseurs, and no doubt film and theatre students also. Film has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and let me tell you, every crease in Keaton’s fabulously craggy face is as deep and sharp as you could wish…

This Film and Notfilm dual-format release from the BFI goes one better than pairing the movie and the documentary. There are outtakes here, including an opening scene thought lost for decades. There’s the haunting British colour remake from 1979, starring Max Wall, interviews, featurettes, photo galleries, and a really very illuminating set of booklet essays by Michael Brooke, Ross Lipman and Vic Pratt (who writes in loving detail about the 1979 version). There’s even the option to download Mihály Vig’s really rather wonderful music from the Notfilm soundtrack.

I especially enjoyed an audio recording of Beckett, cinematographer Boris Kaufman and director Alan Schneider, thrashing out the story…

What a treat!

Original post: 10 March 2012

Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. At first it sounds like the strangest of collaborations; but quickly begins to feel like the most natural of pairings. In 1964 they made Film, a 20 minute cinematic curiosity.

Tin House recently re-posted a Barney Rosset piece on Film:-

Evergreen Theater were me, Richard Seaver, Fred Jordan (all of us with Grove), and Alan Schneider a seasoned director of Samuel Beckett’s work in North America… We established Evergreen Theater and made up a list of authors we thought would make great film writers.

With Beckett’s Film (a very Beckettian, though confusing, title) we were luckier than with all the other scripts. Samuel Beckett came from Paris to New York for his one and only trip to the United States.

The production staff was a talented one. I prevailed upon an old acquaintance, Sydney Myers, not only a fine director but also a master of film editing, to be our editor. He and Sam quickly became friends. For cinematographer I chose Boris Kauffman, because of his work with Jean Vigo on two feature films, Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante. Though I did not know it then, Kauffman had become a famous cinematographer in this country, for his Oscar-winning work in On the Waterfront and many other big Hollywood films. Even stranger to me was the discovery that Boris’s brother was Dziga Vertov, one of the great filmmakers during the Soviet Union’s creative heyday.

But how was Keaton chosen for the lead?

The first person Beckett wanted for the only major role in Film was the Irish actor Jack McGowran. He was unavailable, as was Charlie Chaplin and also Zero Mostel, Alan’s choice. Finally, Alan suggested Buster Keaton. Sam liked the idea, so Alan flew out to Hollywood to try and sign Buster up. There he found Buster living in extremely modern circumstances. On arrival he had to wait in a separate room while Keaton finished up an imaginary poker game with, among others, the legendary (but long-dead) Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg. Keaton took the job. During an interview, Beckett told Kevin Brownlow (a Keaton scholar) that “Buster Keaton was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face… He had great endurance, he was very tough, and, yes, reliable. And when you saw that face at the end… Ah. At last.”

And working with Beckett?:-

In his book, Entrances, Alan Schneider discusses working with Beckett: “Sam was incredible. People always assume him to be unyielding, but when the chips are down, on specifics, here as well as in all his stage productions, he is completely understanding, flexible, and pragmatic. Far from blaming anything on the limitations and mistakes of those around him, he blamed his own material and himself.”

In this article Kevin Brownlow decribes Beckett talking about working with Buster:-

I asked if Keaton ever enquired what the Film was about?
Beckett laughed. ‘No. He wasn’t interested.’
‘Did you ever tell him?’
‘I never did, no. I had very little to do with him. He sat in his dressing room, playing cards – patience or something, until he was needed. The only time he came alive was when he described what happened when they were making films in the old days. That was very enjoyable. I remember him saying that they started with a beginning and an end and improvised the rest as they went along. Of course, he tried to suggest gags of his own.’
‘Did you use any of them.’
‘No,’ he laughed. ‘We were depriving him of his trump card – his face.’

What did Buster make of it? In the the same article, James Karen is reported to say:-

‘Buster didn’t understand it. Who understood it? I didn’t understand it I mean, I didn’t find it very great drama, and yet it is an exciting picture to see and a lot of people think very highly of it. Buster did not.’

Whatever the merits of Film (it’s certainly no masterpiece), the image of the cloaked and hatted Buster scuttling along that wall is one that always seems to resonate, though I’m not sure why.


I can’t end without including one of the most remarkable clips on Youtube: a short extract of the notoriously camera-shy Beckett being interviewed in his hotel room:-

Film: Further Beyond – A Journey Well Worth Taking


With HELEN and MISTER JOHN, directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy proved themselves adept at thoughtful and intelligent fiction features. Mark Kermode waxed lyrical about HELEN in this video review:

It’s one of those little gems that really makes you think cinema can still be exciting and exceptional in ways that are frankly inexplicable.

Their latest film is also exceptional; a wonderfully playful, stimulating, and hard to characterise ‘documentary’  called FURTHER BEYOND. Leslie Felperin’s five star review describes it as:

by turns an essay film in the tradition of Chris Marker (San Soleil) and Patrick Keiller (London), a documentary, and a quirky drama about loss and exile…For those who care about film-making that pushes against what’s possible – and fundable – in an age of cautious, cookie-cutter comic-book franchises and safe-bet awards bait, this is essential viewing.

FURTHER BEYOND is about Ambrose O’Higgins, an 18th-century figure who migrates from Ireland to Chile. Or rather, it is a film about how the biopic of this historical figure might be made. It’s also about the insightful and witty observations, ruminations, and frequent digressions along the way.

David Jenkins, in his Little White Lies review, says:

This brilliant latest feature offers a playful deconstruction of conventional narrative filmmaking, picking up on bad habits and clichés and puncturing through the fourth wall to emphasise the subtle connections between fact and fiction. Further Beyond is a movie biopic that’s been carefully pulled inside-out, interested in posing questions about the ethics of representation and what it means to deliver personal history as objective fact.

I think Donald Clarke, writing in the Irish Times, gets the best analogy when he says:

There is something of Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy about the piece. Just as that 18th-century novel took endless discursions while deconstructing the form, Further Beyond refuses to settle down and be a conventional documentary. [It’s] a labyrinthine journey well worth taking.


One of the joys of this film is being immersed in a ‘story’ that is continually re-shaping and re-forming itself, making new connections and discoveries, then looking at itself again and making new discoveries. In a piece written by the directors for Mubi, they say:

The process of making Further Beyond is a million miles away from the process of making narrative fiction. We discovered, or should we say, rediscovered the pleasure of walking and talking, researching, filming, editing, writing and back to walking and talking again as a legitimate way of putting a film together. A reminder that it is not always necessary to start with a script. For us, when making Further Beyond, this freedom of approach meant we could continually change the course of the documentary’s direction based on the actual material we were getting and not what we imagined we might get…

At its core, Further Beyond is about our desire to make a bio pic about a little known but compelling 17th century Irish man, Ambrose O’Higgins—a poor tenant farmer who left Ireland for South America before eventually becoming the Governor General of Chile. We thought that would be enough. However, as we began to make this documentary we quickly felt the facts of his life—the history lesson, so to speak—were only part of what was interesting to us. We also found what he represented equally compelling. And then, during the process of researching the material, we came across old video tape footage of my mother, Helen. Like Ambrose, Helen’s story is also one of migration and travel, which began when she was 11 months old and was put on a ship in New York, unaccompanied, to be sent off to relatives in Ireland. Helen’s story began to compete for our attention but, yet again, what interested us was what she represented. What she embodied. Suddenly—suddenly?—no, gradually, we had two intertwining narratives so that the film became more complex and intriguing and, it has to be said, more unwieldy…

As the film developed it also became more personal to us. More personal in terms of its content but also in how it was being expressed. In fact, we think it’s fair to say it’s the most personal film we’ve ever made. We didn’t set out with this in mind but it just moved in that direction and we felt we had to follow it. This might sound like the film was controlling us and not the other way around. That the film itself could tell us where to go next. What it wanted next. Seems stupid to say this but even as we sit and type these words, we’re not entirely sure that this wasn’t the case. Spooky.

A special screening of the film will take place at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge on Tuesday 7th February at 18:15, after which I will be hosting a Q&A with Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor.

Don’t miss this great opportunity to see FURTHER BEYOND on the big screen and meet the filmmakers in person.



My Favourite Films of 2016

I have a love/hate relationship with top film lists.

Of course, their contents are dependent on the films actually seen, contingent on mood and atmosphere when seen, influenced by how others reacted, and much more. Yet, they hold an irresistible fascination, and often provide a useful opportunity to spot films which I need to check out, or some that may be worth another viewing to give them a further chance.

So, for what it might be worth, here’s my list of my favourite films seen in 2016. It’s a snapshot of this moment in time and nothing more. Tomorrow, it will probably be different.

Here it goes….


New releases in 2016




Limited release / festival release / TV / other



Older films which I discovered for the first time




Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: Buster and the Jazzer

This is the fourth in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.

The stunning new restorations of Buster Keaton’s short films, which have been released as part of the Masters of Cinema series, provide a great excuse to binge watch the master at work and also to observe the development of Keaton’s craft.

The first moment he ever appeared on film, in ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s THE BUTCHER BOY, he was already a natural, in complete control of his physical performance. He brought a freshness and fertile imagination to all the films he worked on with Arbuckle.

However, it is when he begins to make his own films that Buster’s real genius emerges. Jeffrey Vance, in the booklet which accompanies the Masters of Cinema box-set, says about ONE WEEK, the first of Keaton’s short films to be released, that it…

…takes a dramatic leap in story construction, cinema technique, and comic invention from the films he made with Arbuckle.

Keaton’s creativity flourished within seemingly opposing factors: structure and spontaneity. Keaton is quoted in the Masters of Cinema booklet as saying…

Even when making my two-reelers I worked on the theory that the story was always of first importance.

Unlike the Arbuckle slapstick fests, where story was almost incidental, Keaton saw the importance of using narrative and character in making films which were funnier and more substantial. However, the ideas flowed only when this structure allowed for a great deal of improvisation. Keaton again…

When a big studio today has got their schedules laid out, and those people are called and everything, you go in there and shoot, regardless. You can’t improvise, as we did then. Why, we’d change every other minute. We never knew what we were running into. When we ran into something good, we stuck with it. That’s the great handicap today – no flexibility.

The freedom of improvisation within the confines of form is, of course, at the heart of most jazz. The chord structure is equivalent to story and character and helps shape and inspire the player’s creativity in finding new ways of telling that story. It is why I am very excited to be able to bring the two art forms together in the Herts Jazz FILM Festival when the superb jazz pianist David Newton will accompany two Buster Keaton shorts – the already mentioned ONE WEEK as well as NEIGHBORS. Here is David caught on a fairly rough video at the 2004 Appleby Jazz Festival. Within the simple blues chord structure he finds endless inspiration!

There should be a very special kind of magic when David meets Buster!

David Newton will be playing live to two Buster Keaton shorts on Saturday 17th September. Details and tickets are available here.

Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: John Akomfrah on Stan Tracey

This is the third in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.

John Akomfrah is an enormously respected filmmaker and artist whose documentary films include critically acclaimed titles such as THE NINE MUSES and THE STUART HALL PROJECT. Born in Ghana, he was educated in London and Portsmouth and went on to co-found the Black Audio Film Collective, which BFI Screenonline describes as having the…

objectives of addressing issues of Black British identity and developing media forms appropriate to this subject matter.

One film on his CV which is sometimes overlooked is a beautifully crafted portrait of one the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, made for BBC Four in 2003. STAN TRACEY: THE GODFATHER OF BRITISH JAZZ is an affectionate and insightful exploration of Tracey’s long and prestigious career and receives a rare showing on the big screening as part of a Stan Tracey gala closing night event at the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival. As well as the screening itself, the evening will also feature a live performance by the Stan Tracey Legacy Quartet, led by Stan’s son, the leading British drummer Clark Tracey, and featuring player who all have a close association with the late pianist.

In an interview conducted via correspondence I asked John Akomfrah how he felt about this special screening of his film.

I’m absolutely over the moon that the film’s been chosen for the gala event of the first Herts Jazz FILM Festival . And especially thrilled that it will be followed by a live quartet performance led by Stan’s son Clark.

Stan was a great man, a formidable player and a fantastic composer. And any chance to honour him has my absolute support. I’m only sorry he’s not here to bask in the truly deserved limelight one more time.

I wondered how John had come to make a film on Stan.

Stan’s Under Milk Wood album was the first record I bought from the old Ray’s Jazz Shop, in the RARE AS HEN’S TEETH section I believe. So it cost me quite a bit! I had heard it months before at a friend’s and it blew me away: the lyricism, the unusual sonorities of the performers on the album, like Bobby Wellins. The whole album had this quintessentially British feel and that was my first exposure to that tone, that ‘local ambience’. After years of listening to jazz from all over the planet, it really spoke to me, spoke eloquently about this place (Britain ) and how we inhabit it.

That was in the 80’s and I decided pretty much there and then that I wanted to do something on him.

All of John’s films have a distinct visual style. How did he come to choose the particular look and structure of the Stan Tracey documentary?

Well, I had time to think about it! In a way, all the films are pretty much defined by the qualities one senses or gets from the subject itself.

Any one who knew Stan will tell you he was one of life’s gentle souls, really quiet, charming and very relaxed.But underneath that too, one sensed this steely determination, this overwhelming desire to do things his own way. So, I knew we had to find a form and a structure that spoke to those qualities. And an approach that will be unique for that film. Happily, all my instincts paid off.

I asked John what he is currently working on and was delighted to hear that he is returning to jazz, in the form of an important early jazz player.

I am in the middle of another long gestating piece on another hero, Buddy Bolden.

Now that will be worth looking out for!

The special Stan Tracey gala evening will take place on Sunday 2 October. Tickets are available here.

Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS


This is the second in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.

This classic American film noir was directed by a Scotsman best known for his comedy masterpieces made at the Ealing Studios – THE LADYKILLERS (1955), THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951), and WHISKY GALORE (1949). The darker tones discernible in Alexander Mackendrick’s British films became the dominant motifs of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957). The sharply observed portrayal of a megalomaniac newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and the press agent with precious few principles, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), proved too dark for contemporary audiences but is now regarded as one of the great films of the genre and one that is still relevant today.

Gary Giddens, in his Criterion Collection essay, says:

Audiences in 1957 did not go to see Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis movies to find the characters they played steeped in a disdain that also defiled venerable commonplaces of American life, from brotherly love to dogged ambition, not to mention newspaper columnists, cigarette girls, senators, the police, and all that glittered along the Great White Way. So they stayed away; this was the year of the hits The Bridge on the River Kwai, Peyton Place, and Sayonara—big, colorful productions with heroes, or at least guiding lights, and Aesopian morals. Their loss is posterity’s gain. Sweet Smell of Success is a true classic. The passing of half a century has deepened its manifold pleasures.

The pairing of Curtis and Lancaster turned out to be a masterstroke. Cinephilia and Beyond piece says:

Tony Curtis had to fight really hard to get the role… The problem was that Universal Studios didn’t want to lose its star, an actor the audiences have known and loved from costume adventure epics. Sweet Smell of Success is a far more serious film—an urban drama, with unscrupulous, deeply ambitious characters scheming to make a living in the unforgiving world of showbusiness. What Universal feared ultimately came true: Curtis was sensational in Mackendrick’s film, forever shattering the image Universal so pedantically polished over the years. Paired on screen with the domineering presence of Burt Lancaster and an impressive role from Susan Harrison, Curtis brought Ernest Lehman’s novelette to life with dazzling fortitude.

Michael Brooke, in a piece printed in the superb new Arrow Academy blu-ray release, sums up the film well:

…A masterpiece, one of the most ferociously clear-eyed studies of the seamier side of American journalism and the cult of celebrity attempted either at the time or since, and the most cinematically flamboyant quasi-portrait of a major media figure since Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941)…

The atmosphere of the film is shaped by James Wong Howe’s remarkable black and white photography and enhanced by Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score and the inclusion of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Gary Giddens again:

 The film’s music is another source of enchantment… The period from 1957 to 1965 was the golden age of jazz, or jazz-influenced, movie and TV scores. Suddenly, music directors with a background in jazz and even true jazz composers were taken on by the studios: John Mandel, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Lewis, Henry Mancini, Pete Rugolo, Van Alexander, Eddie Sauter, Benny Carter, Andre Previn, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, and others, plus great jazz improvisers, who appeared in nightclub scenes or soloed invisibly on soundtracks. The composer and conductor on Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Bernstein, though not a jazz composer, figured prominently in this movement. Raised in Manhattan’s upper class and taken on by Aaron Copland as his protégé, Bernstein began scoring films in 1951…


In this picture, instead of using a big central theme…, he employed a series of short, expressive cues that complement the on-screen music performed by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Hamilton’s group was known for combining a laid-back West Coast jazz style (he had initially come to prominence as the drummer in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet) with advanced harmonies, assertive rhythms, and the highly unusual instrumentation of cello (Fred Katz), flute (Paul Horn), and guitar (John Pisano). Bernstein preferred massed brasses and shuffle rhythms, which contrasted agreeably with Hamilton’s lightly astringent approach.

Included in Sight and Sound’s ‘Greatest Films of all Time’ poll of 2012, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is as fresh and hard hitting today as when it was released.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS will open the Herts Jazz FILM Festival on 16 September 2016. Details of the screening can be found here.