Monday, April 20, 2009

De Felitta's Little-Seen but Must-See Doc -- 'TIS AUTUMN: The Search for Jackie Paris



How ironic and oh-so-fitting that, within a month of each other, two documentaries would appear, one in theaters the other on DVD, that deal with a nearly identical subject: musicians praised by their more famous peers as top-of-the-line who then languish for decades out of reach of commercial success. Anvil: The Story of Anvil, about the heavy metal band, has just been greeted with rapturous reviews

and non-stop praise (deserved, too, with me among those praising). However, another small documentary also appeared on DVD this month, after a very limited theatrical release well over a year ago, that tells the story of a musician who, a half-century ago, looked to be the toast of the town yet disappeared into obscurity.

There will come a point for most viewers of 'TIS AUTUMN: The Search for Jackie Paris when all the praise that the narrator/filmmaker Raymond De Felitta (shown above) has been heaping on this little-known singer will come clear. For me it happened when Paris began to sing the Hoagy Carmichael classic Skylark. If butter could cut into steel, this is what it would sound like: soft, sweet and pure yet intense and acute. De Feliita, evidently a jazz maven, first hears, then hears about Paris, whom he also hears is dead. But no. After a little tracking, he discovers the man himself, aging but still singing. With that, we're off and running, as the filmmaker interviews this jazz singer, as well as many of those who knew and still know him, piecing together how and why someone this special could have slipped through the cracks.

De Felitta,who also gave us the rich and moving Two-Family House and the new City Island, does a splendid job of investigating and still honoring his subject, keeping the private areas as private as possible -- under the circumstances of decent documenting, in which things are due to both one's subject and one's viewers. One of the people interviewed opines that Jackie just didn't have the killer instinct required of those who become stars. Slowly, however, we learn of this performer's darker side. There is, finally, one area about which it becomes clear that the singer has simply lied to the filmmaker -- or perhaps has deeply denied to himself. When De Felitta finally tracks down the result of this, he offers us one of the most quietly staggering scenes -- a shocking waste of humanity coupled to a profound sadness about what might have been-- that I can recall witnessing.

Yet there is so much here that is joyful -- the singing, the reminiscing, the times and the tunes -- that, for the most part, the movie goes down like a glass of very good Merlot. (I'm sure there' a better alcohol metaphor here, but I only drink wine.) Three decades separate the Anvil duo from Jackie Paris. The latter's older age means that we don't get quite that feel-good thrill that the former, only in their 50s, provide. As to the depth and realization of the themes we encounter in both films -- the meaning of success, its price and rewards; where family fits into the life of musical performer; the ravages (and odd blessings) of time -- 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris proves every bit as memorable and profound.

I have never been much of a jazz fan (neither am I a fan of Anvil's heavy metal). The type of music in either of these two documentaries, I should think, will not prevent any viewer's enjoyment. After watching De Felitta's film, I went to Amazon and downloaded (for just under $10) , the complete Jackie Paris album of Skylark. I'm listening to it as I write, and, I suspect, turning track by track into more of a jazz fan.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You obviously have acute sensibilities, great writing writing skills and taste. To paraprhase: Butter cuttting through steel... Could be verbatim. Hell -- wish we'd had it for a pull quote.

Thanks for getting this and sharing with your viewers.

dz

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I am not sure that the my butter-cutting-through-steel phrase hasn't been used before. Was just looking for words that captured Paris' distinctive voice on that "Skylark" track. We writers always try to do as good a job with our words as the actors/performers/directors whose work we are describing. We rarely manage it, but we keep trying.

I hope a lot of people discover 'Tis Autumn, which, from the sound of your "pull-quote" mention, you must have had a hand in making or distributing. On the basis of this film and the wonderful "Two Family House," I'd say Mr. De Felitta is one of our most humane filmmakers. I look forward to his new one, "City Island," which shows at the current Tribeca fest here in NYC.