How curious that filmmaker Uli Gaukle’s first trip abroad after the East German’s homeland lost its most visible division with the “free” world (but certainly the Berlin Wall was just one of many great socio, political and economic divides) was to Toronto. As Gaukle explained to the crowd at the première of As Time Goes by in Shanghai, he’s even more delighted to finally return to Ontario’s capital with a film under his wing.
The premise could—literally, but not the tune of the actual title—be succinctly summed up in a song: in this case, “When We Were Young.”
Reminiscent of JWR’s live experience with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (cross-reference below), the musicians under the spotlight are a half-dozen Chinese instrumentalists who make up Shanghai’s Peace [after the storied hotel] Old [the youngest is 65 while the eldest is zeroing in on 90] Jazz Band. What immediately strikes the ear is that—technically—these vrai gentlemen (mostly sporting suits and ties) can’t hold a candle to the skill sets of their American colleagues. The “pitchy” (hate the word but thanks to American Idol it’s “out there”) trumpet (the baby), close-but-no-cigar drums (and still an unrepentant lecher), at times wayward piano, too-bendy-by-half single reeds (clarinet, alto and tenor saxophones) and more or less steady-as-she-goes double bass serve up an “In the Mood” that peels paint. Yet all of the blemishes can readily be ignored once the players reveal themselves to be music lovers of the most devoted order who fully realize that they have felt their way into jazz while their beloved legends/mentors/co-practitioners (past and present) Stateside have been able to unabashedly, unrestrictedly live their music to the fullest.
Nothing gives more weight to this historical reality than the recollection by the bassist that when the Cultural Revolution drew its last breath, city streets were suddenly empty: everyone was indoors listening to the first radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in decades—cultural indeed.
Once viewers realize that the actual music performed by the “Old Gang” plays second fiddle to the life experiences of the musicians, it still takes a while for the film to establish its focus.
The appearance by the group at Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival becomes the bookends of the production, and—at first—it seems that Gaukle will be content with filling the remaining frames with bios of the members, but gradually—like an extra-long Rossini crescendo—he manages to orchestrate enough personal and political intrigue to lift the film above the level of, say, an early work of Salieri’s (cross reference below).
While just hours away from their performance in the huge venue, the eldest performer contracts a nasty virus and ends up in hospital. His dark humour provides a fascinating moment as he stoically hums the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Major and adamantly asserts that it is music from Beethoven.
The audition of a “not young” chanteuse to add colour to the gig in Europe is brief and yields the comment that “We don’t think you’re too bad.”—have cards made! Fortunately, the lack of a passport of the auditionee finally adds a well-travelled songstress into the mix: she can sell the lyrics but lacks enough air support to give the numbers (notably “Fly Me to the Moon”) a professional sheen.
Musically the best of show is a rooftop blues, convincingly wailed on the clarinet even as yet another memory of a long-lost love inspires the solitary art.
Here’s hoping the aging troupe has a safe trip back and are still on their stands, pumping out dance music as their time goes by. JWR