Kaleem Aftab speaks to the star and director of the new big-screen window into the eventful life of Django Reinhardt, the first and most significant jazz artist to emerge from Europe
For years, French director Etienne Comar has wanted to make Django, a film about the musician Django Reinhardt.
The first-time director’s quest is understandable: Reinhardt, a Belgium-born French jazz guitarist of Romani descent, lived a life ripe for the big screen.
Often cited as one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, Reinhardt’s most popular compositions include Minor Swing, Daphne and Belleville.
Reinhardt, who died in 1953 at the age of 42, was the first and most significant jazz artist to emerge in Europe. He’s credited with creating a new style of guitar playing dubbed the “hot jazz guitar” – a fact that’s even more remarkable considering he disabled two fingers in a fire as an 18-year-old.
Reinhardt is best known for the jazz swing music he created in the 1930s, when he emerged alongside violinist Stéphane Grappelli.
They formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934, today considered one of the most innovative bands in the history of recorded jazz.
But the film is not focused solely on the glory days, Comar says. Instead, it explores a lessdocumented two- year period during the Second World War.
“I didn’t want to make a biopic,” Comar says. “I focused on the war period given that it fit with the story that I wanted to tell: the capacity of musicians to remain in their own world in a very difficult moment in history, to the point of not being fully aware of what was happening around them.”
By choosing this period, Comar – who produced award-winning 2014 film Timbuktu – found that he was able to speak about issues that occupy our minds today: refugees, freedom of movement, the status of artists and the deci- sion about whether or not to perform to audiences that you don’t agree with.
Reinhardt isn’t a hero, Comar says, but through his music, he was able to resist and show his own beliefs: “I think that is very beautiful when artists respond to the world around them through their actual work and not necessarily by making grand statements,” Comar says.
Playing the title role is FrenchAlgerian actor Reda Kateb. The grandnephew of late Algerian writer Kateb Yacine, the actor is best known for his roles in 2009’s A Prophet and 2014’s Far From Men and Lost River.
“Art and music do not always make people into activists, but they do change the world and they change the way we look at the world and how we listen to the world and people,” Kateb says. “This film talks about an artist who opens his eyes, and the concert at the end is entirely dedicated to the Roma people. He moves away from being a rather egoistic character to in the end giving something to others.”
Kateb says that music can be a double-edged sword as a way of protest.
“Music can blind you,” he explains. “The philosopher Frantz Fanon, who wrote about colonisation, talked about the trance as something that can stop people revolting. Because when calmed by the music and put into a kind of trance, the people would just grit their teeth and bear any situation.” Acclaimed Dutch jazz band the Rosenberg Trio recorded the music for the film. Such i s the inf luence of Reinhardt on their music that in 2010 they released the DVD I think that is very beautiful when artists respond to the world around them through their actual work and not necessarily by making grand statements Etienne Comar director, Django Djangologists, musician.
They recorded the music for the film before filming began, and during production, the musicians were on set and performed with Kateb.
Another inf luential artist tapped for the project was the Australian multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
The musical authenticity can also be seen in how he recreated Reinhardt’s requiem for the film.
With only a few bars available of Reinhardt’s unfinished requiem, Ellis was drafted to fill in the missing parts with organ, chorus and strings.
“I met Warren Ellis, who has a background in rock music,” Comar says.
“He’s not the kind of musician who would be naturally inclined a tribute to the to compose for a symphony orchestra, and in that respect he’s a bit like Django at the time when he was crossing over from jazz. The words are in Romani; it’s a bit of a ‘ weepy’ song, because Django was a devotee of sacred music.”
Yet many fictional elements do also exist in the film that is based largely on the 2013 novel Folles de Django by Alexis Salatko.
French actress and The Young Pope star Cécile de France benefited from the approach, having been cast in the symbolically significant role as resistance fighter Louise de Klerk.
“She is a feminist before the days of feminism,” De France says. “She represents emancipation of the women in the 1930s.”
Reda Kateb as Django Reinhardt in Etienne Comar’s movie Django, set during a less-documented two-year period of his life during the Second World War.