Jazz at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival

By Matt Micucci


The 66th Berlin International Film Festival (Feb 11-21) unveiled a real gem for film and jazz music when the little seen short documentary film Smith, James O. – Organist, USA was screened as part of its retrospective titled “Spotlight in Music.” The retrospective screened documentaries films directed and produced by artists from the Federal Republic of Germany.


James O. – Organist, USA was directed by Klaus Wildenhahn in 1966. It follows the Jimmy Smith Trio in New York, during a studio recording of their version of the current Rolling Stones hit “Satisfaction.” The recording was intended to be Jimmy Smith’s tribute to the successful British Beat bands of the time, who were themselves inspired by jazz and blues. For the recording, they were joined by white guitarist Kenny Burrell.


In the film, Wildenhahn’s camera stays very close to their subject, often focusing on its subject’s faces. This was a style used in the Direct Cinema wave of the documentary that was popularized in the U.S. during the sixties, and is considered to be the direct precursor of reality TV. This technique allows the viewer to follow the reasoning behind its subjects’ discussions, which also involve the theme of the social status of black musicians in the US.


The film screened in Berlin on three different dates. However, it was not the only jazz related film that was part of this year’s program of the Berlinale.


Don Cheadle’s biopic on Miles Davis, Miles Ahead, was screened as one of the festival’s special galas. Miles Ahead marks Cheadle’s directing debut. With it, Cheadle wishes to distance himself from the conventions of the classical biopic genre, opting to channel the spirit of the musician’s own principles of improvisation in order to gain an inroad into Davis’ true personality by imagining an event that took place in his life during the course of two days.


Miles Ahead had its US premiere at the New York Film Festival this past October, and screened at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Its U.S. release has been confirmed for April 1. The film is also set to for release in in British cinemas from April 22.

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