Ken burns’ massive documentary about the history of jazz, which ran on a BBC midnight slot till June, tripled sales of jazz CDs in the US. It is one of the longest single subject documentaries ever shown on British television, and in scale and gravitas gives The World At War a run for its money. Whilst the jazzerati noted its various weaknesses and ellipses, television critics were largely exuberant. The consensus was that this is what quality television should aspire to. It has been seen as a brave, defining statement in Jane Root’s new BBC2, aimed at baby boomers with attention spans longer than Channel 4’s Generation Y-ers.
It had the same impact in the US. There, Ken Burns is the imprimatur of the Public Broadcasting Service, he is its licence to continue. I bet he’s mentioned in the introduction to its annual report. His trademark marriage of the epic and the pedagogic has defined the high style on which much of PBS’s often routine programming coat-tails.
Jazz was sponsored by General Motors; a fact that produces a wry smile among documentarists. GM once, indirectly and unwillingly, made a less public-spirited contribution to the documentary form in Michael Moore’s 1989 film, Roger and Me. In the 1980s GMs’ Chairman, Roger Smith, and his new regime axed 30,000 jobs in Flint, Michigan. The dogged Moore tried to confront him with the social damage done. The film was a hilarious, rage-fuelled letter bomb about how one town became a rat-infested crime capital.
Consideration of Roger and Me casts Jazz in a less flattering light. Moore’s film was edgy, filmic and first person, as its title suggests. In comparison, Jazz is aesthetically stolid. It chooses a very conventional explicatory mode and sticks to it. It is vanilla documentary, bloodlessly, grandiosely schoolmarmy. It misses by a mile most of the great things that documentary films can at their best do and falls into all the formula traps. As a vehicle for information, a conveyor belt, it is exceptional and I too will buy more music because of it. But it never becomes more complex than that. It has no shape, no driving energy, nothing pre-intellectual.
Jazz’s recent overvaluation raises a perennial problem for documentary and, perhaps, criticism in general. Films which are even halfway good are feted because the great stuff, the electrifying films, are seldom seen-decaying in bad prints, unyieldingly long, resistant…