Dr Martha Shearer teaches film at the University of Surrey and at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her exciting book New York and the Hollywood Musical: Dancing in the Streets (2016, Palgrave Macmillan) examines the vivid urban spaces of the musical metropolis and its relationship to the off-screen geography and history of cities. We first met at the Jazz & Cinema conference at Cardiff in 2013 where she was presenting an early version of work on Scorsese’s New York, New York, published in The Soundtrack journal and referred to in our chat below. With La La Land in cinemas, Martha seemed the perfect person to talk to about jazz films’ use of dance, space and physicality.
NP: Martha, to what extent is jazz a part of the films you discuss in your new book?
MS: One of the main arguments I make in the book is that the musical was really invested in expressing and maintaining an idea of urban density and modernity. But while you’d think jazz could be a big part of that, jazz and the musical have a fairly troubled relationship. Swing is fine. It’s socially cohesive. So you get, for example, Sinatra jazzing up Peter Lawford’s classical composition in It Happened in Brooklyn (1947) in order to get the music to connect with a mass audience, and this is in a film that is preoccupied with ideas of urban community. And you also get a reasonable number of jazz biopics or films that are interested in jazz in historical contexts (e.g. the thing where some white guy will be wandering around a city and “discover” jazz, his new sound, which for the audience of the film is by now an old sound).
As the postwar period progresses, though, as jazz becomes more identified with difference and deviation and more identified with the urban core as suburbanisation is taking off, it’s increasingly used to convey urban disorder. There’s a great number in The Girl Next Door (1953) where a nightclub singer has this number called “Nowhere Guy” that takes place onstage and then shifts into fantasy that is this really clear use of a jazz-y track and jazz dance for urban spaces that are both attractive and threatening. And this is a film that’s mainly about suburbia – the singer has moved to Scarsdale and the man in the audience who imagines himself part of the number is her next door neighbour – so it’s viewing the city at a remove. So jazz is marginal in the musical a lot of the time and, in the 1950s at least, often invoked to articulate some kind of problem. (It Happened in Brooklyn and The Girl Next Door also have the same screenwriter – she’d turned [very] friendly witness in the intervening years, so who knows how meaningful that is, but it indicates, I think, how much had shifted over that time).
NP: Urban space is so often foregrounded in the iconography of jazz. How is the New York of (for example) Sweet Smell of Success different to that of Scorsese’s New York, New York?
MS: I think the real difference is that jazz in Sweet Smell of Success is part of that film’s rather thrilling construction of a coherent world, where the music, the cinematography, the performances, the actual subject matter and the settings themselves all contribute to the same mood. New York, New York is the total opposite. It’s all about aesthetic oppositions, between jazz and the musical, between the artificial urban spaces we see in studio-era musicals and the visions of New York we see in New Hollywood films, and so on. The incompatibility of the urban spaces that jazz and the musical suggest is one of the central ideas that film is playing with.
NP: I love your article on New York, New York and mention it in my book as a great example of interdisciplinary scholarship. What do you think film studies has to offer jazz studies?
MS: Well, firstly, thanks! I think too often there’s a tendency in interdisciplinary scholarship to see film as debased – how has cinema wronged jazz (or ballet or art or even musical theatre)? But cinema has been this really powerful means by which the meanings of jazz have been formed, articulated and contested, so it seems to me that film studies has a critical role to play there.
NP: Well, I agree! Sometimes I feel like there’s a tendency in jazz studies to downplay physicality. What role does dance play in your own work?
MS: That’s an interesting question. In general, dance for me is often a means of drawing connections between sound and image, and in so doing expressing qualities of the spaces in which the performance is taking place. So there’s a big difference between, say, Gene Kelly’s street dances that quite often draw out the grounded and athletic qualities of his dancing and the kinds of numbers you get in the 1950s taking place in expansive luxury spaces shot in CinemaScope, that tend to be much more about lightness. In terms of jazz, the example that comes to mind is “History of the Beat” from Daddy Long Legs, where Fred Astaire is an absurdly wealthy corporate head we see drum along to one of his extensive collection of jazz records and then transitioning into a tap dance number in his modernist apartment. It’s drawing this continuity between his percussive dance and his earlier drumming, but it’s also framing jazz as wholly unthreatening precisely because it’s Astaire and because this jazz record, and all his other modernist interests, are really just an effect of his enormous wealth.
NP: You’ve already mentioned some wonderful uses of jazz in film. Do you have a personal favourite?
MS: I’d really like to say it’s some extraordinary use of music, but I was reminded the other day of the bit in Jailhouse Rock where Elvis is at a fancy party full of rich academics (ha!) that make him listen to jazz and try to talk to him about about atonality and he says, “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” and storms out. I partly love it because its depiction of snootiness and Elvis’s difference is so over-the-top, like a 1950s equivalent of the bit in Legally Blonde where Elle’s law school classmates are describing their absurd accomplishments and then she introduces herself and her dog as Gemini vegetarians. But you can also see so clearly how the film is both trying to mark jazz and rock and roll as disruptive, sonically and socially respectively, but also contain any actual disruptive value they might have, especially since this is a film that’s primarily interested in music as commercial. For a moment that’s so brief there’s a lot going on.