Film Review: Django

Great musician; dull, hollow film.
Specialty Releases

Jean “Django” Reinhardt (1910-53), the brilliant Romany guitarist/composer, helped introduce jazz to Europe, specifically France, and remains one of the most influential musicians of the last century, making it to Carnegie Hall and deeply admired by such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and co-performer Stéphane Grappelli.  Loosely basing his film on Alexis Salatko's novel Django, writer-director Étienne Comar attempts to bring Reinhardt to life, with particular emphasis on his gypsy outsider status, especially facing the Nazis’ hatred for his race during World War II.

Unfortunately, in a desire to perhaps instill some immediacy and excitement into this biopic, a plethora of faintly alternative facts have squirmed their way into the movie, like positing Django’s wildly popular concerts as cover events for Resistance fighters who get to slink around right under the noses of their music-crazy Nazi occupiers. (Rather than entirely cover Reinhardt’s kaleidoscopic, if short, life, first-time director Comar chooses to focus on the 1940s war era.) Even if one is totally unfamiliar with Reinhardt’s biography, such scenes have a facile and synthetic action-movie vibe to them that instinctively feels trumped up.

How I wish the filmmakers had trusted the truth to be interesting enough to truly honor it, for what could have been an exhilarating and informatively historical musical ride is just, well, dull and quite overextended. There’s no context or real development for any of the characters, so even the strikingly distinctive actor Reda Kateb, entrusted with the title role, is unable to make him truly come to life, this jaw-dropping talent who managed to become the guitar virtuoso of all time, even though two fingers on his left hand were deformed during a fire that took place when he was 18.

Of the cast members, only Bimbam Merstein as Reinhardt’s aged yet feisty mother is memorable. The others, like the ordinarily gifted Cécile De France as his girlfriend, Louise de Klerk, who does an awful lot of picturesque strolling with him, are not able to take the meager clues offered by an overlong yet dramatically malnourished script to create characters that involve us.

Despite a nicely burnished period look provided by cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne and production design by Olivier Radot, this movie’s only real interest lies in the viewer’s being able to hear so much of Reinhardt’s wonderful, wildly innovative and vividly bracing, propulsive music, or  “jazz manouche,” as it was referred to. Comar tries to reproduce the exciting pace and rhythm of said music with a rather schizophrenic  directorial technique full of jumpy editing effects, which merely exposes his basic concept for the empty bit of flash that it is.

Click here for cast and crew information.