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SIFF Review: 'The Savoy King' Celebrates Harlem Jazz Drummer Chick Webb

Thompson on Hollywood By John W. Comerford | Thompson on Hollywood June 11, 2012 at 8:39PM

“Music is a universal combiner," says Dr. Muriel Petioni, the mother of Harlem medicine, in the first few measures of Jeff Kaufman’s spirited window into the culture of the Harlem music and dance movement in the 1920’s and '30’s. This is a perfect descriptor for "The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America."

The principal backdrop for this incessant cadence is the Savoy Ballroom. Opened by 27-year-old entrepreneur Moe Gale in 1926, a luggage salesman looking for a sideline business opportunity, the Savoy unintentionally breached race barriers in Harlem that had world-famous spots such as The Cotton Club admitting only white patrons. All were welcome at the Savoy to listen, dance, socialize and in a twist for an uptown nightspot – behave. The ballroom’s policy of decorum enabled ladies of all backgrounds to frequent the establishment without fear of inappropriate advances or violence. Critical to the establishment’s success, this focused the patrons on the acrobatic swing dancers and furious beats that fueled the famously raucous atmosphere.

Kaufman dutifully profiles the celebrities who flocked to the Savoy, including Clark Gable. When word spread of his arrival, the customers asked: "Can he dance?"  When the answer was "No," the crowd quickly turned its attention back to the action on the bandstand and dance floor.

Another story weaved with Webb's is that of his discovery and cultivation of initially timid vocal great Ella Fitzgerald. The film does stretch into excessively atonal territory with the use of less than fully realized 3-D computer simulations of the Savoy and some narration segments that are too eager to please. But as one of the jazz greats has been known to say, in the jazz idiom, "there are simply no wrong notes."

This article is related to: Documentary, Seattle International Film Festival , Festivals, Festivals, Reviews

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.