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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Submitted by Roger Mellor

Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960)
Influence of The Red Shoes on Bert Stern's film

Bert Stern, director of the classic Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), available on DVD (USA Region) talks of Michael Powell and "The Red Shoes"

The 1958 Newport Jazz Festival Remains a Palpable Treasure, thanks to Filmmaker Bert Stern

By 1958, Bert Stern had become a celebrated advertising and fashion photographer, but the then 28-year-old had another ambition: "I wanted to make a movie before I was 30," says Stern, who beat his deadline with Jazz on a Summer's Day. More than four decades later, Stern's sharply etched, exhilarating portrait of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival --from fabulous yachts to youthful party-hoppers to sensational performances by Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, and others -- looks better than ever on a sparkling DVD release. To celebrate the return of this jazz classic -- one of the few documentaries to be added to the National Film Registry -- Stern spoke with Barnes&;'s John Guida about his film. Barnes & What made you want to do a film of the Newport Jazz Festival?

Bert Stern: Bert Stern: It sounded very interesting to me. Jazz and Newport were contradictory: One was kind of poor and from the South, the other was rich and up in the North. I imagined the green lawns that all these rich people had and jazz being played and lots of people sitting on the lawn. George Wein, who put on the festival, said they had thought of [filming] it, but it would be impossible to do because you could never get all the releases and permissions -- just too many different groups, too many different agents. But I was set on it, and I said, "Let me worry about that part. Why don't I just shoot it, and I'll get the releases later?"

B& Did you scout the location?

BS: I went up to Newport to take a look at the setting, which turned out to be in the backyard of a high school, and that was kind of shocking to me, because there were no green lawns, there were just cement floors. It was kind of a downer, so I had pretty much decided not to go forward with it because it didn't have the charm I was looking for. When I got back on this little plane to go back to New York, I sat down next to this guy, a lawyer. We got talking, a real nice guy who was interested in the arts, jazz, all kinds of stuff. He asked what I was doing up there. And I said, "Well, I went to look at this location, but it was really terrible. So I guess I'm not going to go forward on this project." And he said, "Oh, that's ridiculous, you've got to go forward on it, it's a wonderful idea." We were so high up in the clouds, it was like the voice of God telling me you've got to do this project. I realized that my first instinct probably was the right one and I shouldn't back out because it was difficult.

B& What do you think of the DVD image?

BS: The quality is like going back in time. It's digitized from the original negative, and the color is like it was just made, just beautiful. Very alive.

B& The lighting is striking. Who did it?

BS: The festival was lit so low we couldn't get an exposure. So I offered to light the festival -- not that I knew how to do it -- and pay for it, which George Wein seemed very happy about. We just got a truckload of lights and brought them up there, and they said, "OK, where do you want them?" And I said, "Are you kidding?" I didn't have a clue. But I said, "Well, just stick them on the stage," but it looked awful. So I said, "Why don't you turn them around, point them at the camera, and we'll shoot into the lights."

B& Had you seen any documentaries or music films that acted as a model for you?

BS: I didn't like jazz very much at the time because I thought most of it took place in cellars in Greenwich Village, all in black and white. If anything influenced me, it would have been a movie called "The Red Shoes" by Michael Powell. When I saw that film, probably when I was 18, I was so taken with the color that I remember just holding onto the arms of the chairs in the movie theater and being mesmerized because I thought it was the first color movie that used color instead of it being in color. And I think they had stage lights and shooting into lights, I'm not sure, but it was red and it was very exciting to me. It's a wonderful movie -- it's one of my favorites, still is. The influence was very subliminal, very instinctual.

B& The list of performers from the entire festival, from Thursday to Sunday, is amazing. Is there any footage of the performances from days other than Saturday, when the musicians in the film were shot?

BS: We put the best stuff in the movie. But there were a lot of other songs by performers. There were maybe two or three songs never seen before by Louis Armstrong and certainly more material of Mahalia Jackson. I don't know if there's footage of people that are not in the movie. There might be. These were all that were left out because we didn't have time. So there's kind of a treasure chest there.

July 11, 2000

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