Now that I've posted my Recommended Listening and Recommended Reading, I'd like to close out the triptych with a list of Recommended Viewing. Duke was a preternaturally charming and charismatic figure and it is a real kick to watch him on film — the camera loves him. He also wrote the music for several feature films and it's thrilling to hear those bold Ellingtonian colors and sonorities supporting the onscreen action.
Love You Madly + A Concert of Sacred Music at Grace Cathedral (directed by Ralph J. Gleason)
Love You Madly is a delightful and engrossing portrait of Ellington, filmed during the run-up to the September 16, 1965 premiere of the Concert of Sacred Music, which helped inaugurate the long-delayed opening of San Fransisco's Grace Cathedral. We get to see the trademark Ellington charm on full display in his interactions with the audience at Basin Street West. Then, during the band's "coffee break," we follow him into his dressing room where the weary, aging bandleader drops the facade, changes into a bathrobe and lies down on the sofa with a towel over his eyes, desperate for a half-hour catnap between sets. We follow the orchestra down to Monterey for their performance at the famed jazz festival, and get a look behind the scenes at a (ultimately unused) recording session for the Concert of Sacred Music. [Favorite moment: Duke coaching the young gospel singer Esther Marrow on the challenging intervalic leaps in "In The Beginning God."]
The second half of the DVD captures the premiere of the Concert of Sacred Music, and includes a soulful waltz featuring Marrow, "Tell Me It's The Truth," that was unaccountably left off the Status Records CD. Bunny Briggs' tap-dancing routine on "David Danced Before The Lord" is also something that really needs to be seen to be believed.
On The Road With Duke Ellington (directed by Robert Drew)
Originally filmed for NBC's Bell Telephone Hour, Drew followed Ellington closely for most of 1967 and captures a number of genuinely intimate moments, including a backstage chat with Louis Armstrong, and heartbreaking footage of Billy Strayhorn's funeral.
Here are a couple of excerpts from the film:
FILM SCORE WORK
Anatomy of a Murder (directed by Otto Preminger)
Duke Ellington (sometimes in collaboration with Billy Strayhorn) wrote the music for four feature films, but his best score happens to be in support of what is easily the finest movie of the bunch. Otto Preminger's 1959 noir-influenced courtroom drama is a legitimate classic of American cinema, breaking more than a few taboos, including its frank treatment of sexual assault. Ellington's score contains some of his most strikingly memorable themes, including the sultry "Flirtbird" and the sinewy main title, later repurposed by Peggy Lee as "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'." Anatomy of a Murder is also the first full-length Hollywood film score to be written by an African-American composer.
Here is the famous title sequence, designed by the great Saul Bass:
For more on Ellington's film work, I recommend this essay from Film Score Monthly Online.
In addition to the footage from the Concert of Sacred Music included on the Love You Madly DVD, the Jazz Icons series has a first-rate Ellington installment: Duke Ellington Live in '58. It's hard to top the Blanton-Webster band but this edition is right up there, and on this night they are absolutely on fire. The hookup between Jimmy Woode on bass and Sam Woodyard on drums is timelessly swinging, and trumpeter Clark Terry, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, and clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton are three of the greatest soloists in jazz, period.
Speaking of which, here is a little taste of this live set: Paul Gonsalves ripping it up, Newport-style, on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue."
There is an embarrassment of riches out there! Here's a personal favorite, a fascinating behind-the-scenes short film that illustrates the state-of-the-art (for 1937) production of 78 rpm records, by way of "Daybreak Express" and "Oh Babe! Maybe Somdeday":
What are some of your favorite Ellington moments on film? I've just barely scratched the surface here — link away in comments!