In Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown,” Sean Penn boasts, “I’m considered the best guitar player maybe that ever lived, certainly in this country. There’s this gypsy in France, and he’s the most beautiful thing I ever heard.” The only guitarist superior to Penn’s fictional Emmet Ray? Django Reinhardt, a Belgian-born hot-jazz strummer whose talent saved him during World War II.
As a historical-fiction account of this wartime chapter in the jazz legend’s life, “Django” delivers a showcase role for gifted actor Reda Kateb, who’s had small parts in “A Prophet” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” but is otherwise rarely seen outside of France. It also marks a rather poignant choice to open the 2017 Berlinale, since the film — while not an especially compelling or well-told biopic unto itself — shines much-needed attention on the plight of the Roma people at the hands of German (and French) officials.
The timing of the Gallic-backed project is all the more significant when one considers that François Hollande only recently became the first French president to acknowledge the “broad responsibility” the Vichy regime played in rounding up Roma during the war. Still, much of the blame rightfully falls on Nazi officials, who not only harassed, interned, and executed so many of Reinhardt’s brethren, but also had the gall to dictate aesthetic limits on what Hitler deemed “degenerate music.”
As conceived, the film serves up Reinhardt as synecdoche for the entire Roma experience in WWII, when in truth, he was perhaps its most notable exception, protected as he was by his supreme talent. And though the similarities between this “Django” and Quentin Tarantino’s unchained abolition fantasy end with the characters’ names, there are moments when it could pass for a beigey, low-key “Inglourious Basterds” — at least inasmuch as it rather fancifully imagines Reinhardt’s concerts slyly providing cover for Resistance fighters, who slink around while the Nazis are distracted.
Steering oh-so-loosely by Alexis Salatko’s already-fictionalized historical novel, “Django” helmer Étienne Comar soft-pedals much of the well-documented cruelty and violence visited upon Roma at the time — apart from a clumsy early scene, in which an old gypsy guitarist is shot in the head by German soldiers. That general strategy of trusting audiences to fill in the threat themselves may serve the film well in European release, but it makes for a strangely tension-free drama (since Americans have a far greater appetite for watching Nazi-perpetrated violence on screen, whereas subtle suggestion is considered the “classy” choice in countries where such atrocities actually happened).
In lieu of conflict, Comar focuses on the music, interrupting the oddly meandering narrative for minutes at a time as Kateb’s Reinhardt and his circle treat the audience to mini-concerts that showcase his talent, or else center on the gypsy folk-stylings that directly influenced it. These are by far the most engaging sequences in the biopic, beginning with a seven-minute medley near the beginning in which Reinhardt must be dragged from fishing in the Seine to headline a sold-out show.
At first, Kateb’s portrayal seems almost farcical, the broad caricature of a drunken musician ambivalent about his day job. But once on stage, he disappears effortlessly into the music, casting a spell on the audience. Technically, it’s Gypsy jazz guitarist Stochelo Rosenberg’s playing that we hear, though it’s Kateb’s pantomime that mesmerizes most, based less on 1938’s “Jazz ‘Hot’” single-reel doc short (the best surviving visual record of Reinhardt’s style) than the way lost-in-feeling acoustic guitarists perform today. Because contemporary viewers don’t have a fixed image of Reinhardt, Kateb is free to invent him. Still, the film remains historically true to Reinhardt’s moustache and deformed left hand (two fingers were left paralyzed when he was severely burned at age 18).
At the time, a significant part of Reinhardt’s paradoxical appeal was his outsider status, an exotic “savage” quality that cultured fans found transgressive — much as white kids gravitate to gangsta rap today. Still, in the age of Lady Gaga Super Bowl halftime shows, it’s hard to identify with an era in which cultural values were threatened by the very notion of jazz or swing music. Reinhardt found himself on the avant garde of that dynamic: an artist who wasn’t compelled to conform, but brought an improvisatory passion to whatever he played. As far as the authorities were concerned, such an attitude made him dangerous and potentially difficult to control, both on stage and in his private life, and so they sought to co-opt him to their cause.
Though it never feels as if he’s overtly taking a stand against the regime, the film shows Reinhardt defying the Germans in his own way. Like a celebrity declining to play at President Trump’s inauguration, he slips away into hiding instead of agreeing to perform the propaganda concerts expected of him (whereas Edith Piaf totally sold out). And yet, the movie struggles to make Reinhardt’s banal private moments feel as exciting as those in which he performed live.
It’s as if Comar (an accomplished producer of films such as “Of Gods and Men” and “Timbuktu,” here making his directorial debut) doesn’t quite understand how to tell this story, assembling instead a collection of wispy, wandering vignettes in which Reinhardt and his mistress (Cécile de France) crack each other up with Hollywood movie-star impersonations, or else walk wordlessly along the banks of a scenic French lake. Such scenes are neither realistic nor dramatic, and barely qualify as poetic — assuming that’s what the film is going for.
Comar’s thesis seems to be that great music transcends the conflict of the times, and while that may be true to some degree — not only did Reinhardt’s work provide emotional escape to its listeners, but much of his music outlived the regime that sought to suppress and control it — the movie barely makes the weighty conflict feel real. One key composition that did not survive the war was Reinhardt’s lost “Requiem for Gypsy Brothers,” which opens the door for the film to speculate as to how this organ-centric mass might have sounded, even as it finds fresh resonance today.