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  Syncopation Now You Has Jazz
Year: 1942
Director: William Dieterle
Stars: Adolphe Menjou, Jackie Cooper, Bonita Granville, George Bancroft, Robert Benchley, Walter Catlett, Ted North, Todd Duncan, Connee Boswell, Frank Jenks, Jessica Grayson, Mona Barrie, Lindy Wade, Peggy McIntyre, Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa
Genre: Drama, Romance, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Centuries ago, on the continent of Africa, the white man came and bought black people into slavery from their countrymen, a horrifying turn of events which saw countless slaves brought to the United States. However, once the slaves were emancipated many years later, the plight of the African American has begun to improve, yes, plenty take menial jobs, but now there's nothing out of the ordinary in a black man becoming a banker. And the music they have evolved with this rise has taken the world by storm: jazz, which has brought the young folks of all races together across America to dance, folks like Johnny Schumacher (Jackie Cooper) and Kit Latimer (Bonita Granville).

Who are both conspicuously white, but don't go writing off Syncopation straight away, for it was a lot more enlightened about race than many of its contemporaries, if not quite up to twenty-first century standards. Johnny and Kit have a black friend they grew up with, Rex (Todd Duncan), and he will appear every so often in the plot as he is an accomplished musician of jazz, so while the main featured couple were the focus of the narrative, there was a stronger acknowledgement of the benefits of black culture than was usual for the day. Now, while things were not perfect in the nineteen-forties racially, there were instances of racial themes and performers appearing.

If Rex had been the protagonist, then this would have been marketed to a very different audience, one which was exclusively black - something like the Louis Jordan musicals that played like gangbusters to African American audiences this decade. Syncopation does however end with a celebration of jazz performed by a completely white lineup, including huge names like Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa, which could be taken two ways, either whitey ripping off the black culture yet again, or proof that quality knows no racial boundaries and good music is good music no matter what colour the musicians and singers are who put it across. That's a personal reaction.

There was a storyline here, and it followed Johnny and Kit through the years as they tried to pursue jazz as a way of life, only obstacles got in their way, the major one being The First World War which threatens to tear them apart. Aside from that, the busybodies and prejudiced were put in their place when Kit is put on trial by a local conservative activist for "starting a riot", which actually means she played boogie-woogie piano while a bunch of people danced; being a massive racist, this activist cannot see anything but the worst aspects of whites playing jazz, but a rendition in the courtroom gets everyone else jiving and the Kit is exonerated. It's a nice scene, but plainly a fantasy, though in other places there were more serious-minded considerations and a barbed portrayal of a Paul Whiteman character.

Whiteman was known as The King of Jazz, or at least he was promoted in that manner, and he gets a stand-in here who is so straitjacketed in his lack of inspiration or improvisation in his successful stage shows that it drives recruit Johnny around the bend. He is better off listening to Rex, his old pal who acts as an oft-absent mentor, but a mentor nonetheless: the film makes it clear that it is the black musicians who taught the white ones how to play right in the relationship between the master (Rex) and his pupil (Johnny). While Syncopation obviously meant well, it's difficult not to compare it to later jazz biopics and see where it was somewhat constricted by the expectations of the era, and it does try to pack so much in to less than ninety minutes that director William Dieterle looks keener to cram as many talking points and bursts of music as he can rather than crafting something slick and measured. If this was all over the place in its need to broaden its appeal, you could forgive it plenty, as that music was very fine.

[Syncopation is released by Eureka on Blu-ray with no extras, but it is a very nice print.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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