Django Reinhardt was a Belgian-born Romani French jazz guitarist and composer who was one of the greatest influencers of hot jazz, swing, and big band music. Reinhardt is considered one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century, and he is well known for his signature virtuosity in guitar playing. For me, all I have to do is picture a smoke-filled room inhabited by Hemingway, Dali, Picasso, Fitzgerald, and Stein, with bottomless whiskey tumblers and ash trays as far as the eye can see, and I can hear Reinhardt’s quick, lively fingers picking away at his guitar strings with an upright bass thumping away in the background.
Etienne Comar’s Django is the only live-action depiction of the great musician I have seen in modern cinema. Comar and the actor playing Django himself, Reda Kateb, get everything right when it comes to the music Django made. Every shot of the film feels like a dreamy France that you want to soak in for the rest of your life. Comar’s film is equal parts Django’s music and musicianship (as performed by an impressive Kateb and his band) and a moment in history that many did not know was part of Django’s life.
Instead of making a traditional biopic, Comar captures a supposedly important event in Django’s life that took place in 1943 in Nazi-occupied France. Django, a self-identified Gypsy, has received word that his fellow Gypsies are being hunted down, killed, and tortured by the Nazi regime. Django chooses to keep his head down and play the music he is so fond of to, hopefully, sold-out crowds in saloons and theaters. Django doesn’t seem to realize that his popularity will come at a price. The Reich has noticed Django’s music and so, under the watchful eye of Goebbels himself, the Nazi propaganda machine “invites” him to take his band on a tour of Germany. When Django refuses to cooperate to the full extent of Nazi law is when things get challenging for him.
Comar reaches the point of damn near cinematic ecstasy when he focuses on Django’s musicality. Those scenes are classy, dream-like, and a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. Reda Kateb and a hot jazz outfit called The Rosenberg Trio perform the songs in the way that I would picture Django and his band performing them. Every touch is wonderful, even the ascot Kateb wears around his neck.
Comar lost me, however, when he decided to leave the music and focus on the little known, and frankly uninteresting, story of Django getting out from under Hitler’s thumb. It should be more exciting. It’s not. The scenes that don’t involve music are drab, glum, and meandering. Comar loosely based his screenplay on a novel by Alexis Salatko called Folles de Django. Most of Salatko’s work is embellished and very fictionalized. It leaves one to wonder, did this time in Django Reinhardt’s life really need to be made in to a film?
In the scenes where Comar and Kateb embody Django’s music, I was reminded of the great film La Vie En Rose starring the genius Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, another incredible French performer. What filmmaker Olivier Dahan got right with his film was the balance of great music with the ins and outs of Piaf’s very captivating and tragic life.
Based on Django, Reinhardt’s musical genius is the only thing about him that seems even remotely captivating or of note. Comar’s film is hot when it’s hot, but too damn cold when it’s cold. It’s a pity because the great Django Reinhardt probably deserved better.-Josiah Armstrong