Jazz and Alienation: A Film Review (Jimmy’s Hall and Amy)

I had a rare occasion of watching two films at the Roxy Theatre this past weekend. One is Jimmy’s Hall directed by Ken Loach and the other is Amy by Asif Kapadia. I was originally planning to write about the former and other Ken Loach films, but since there are so many interesting parallels and contradictions between Jimmy’s Hall and Amy, I decided to write a “cross-review” of the two instead.

The obvious similarities are that both films are British production and about jazz. But there is also a less obvious undercurrent that connects the two. They are both about alienation, representing the different ways in which the protagonists’ engagement with jazz either empower and unite people or sow divisions, compromise their autonomy, and ultimately destroy them.

jim1

Barry Ward as Jimmy Gralton.

In Jimmy’s Hall, set in 1932 Ireland, jazz is represented as a revolutionary culture. Though initially a foreign import brought in from New York by an Irish communist and the film’s protagonist Jimmy Gralton, it becomes a symbol of free expression, community, and resistance to the autocratic rule of Catholic Church. More importantly, jazz symbolizes internationalism and class solidarity, as Jimmy describes his favourite jazz parlour in New York as “the only place in the United States where blacks and whites dance together.” The film also represents jazz as a medium that symbolically unifies the two oppressed nations in struggle (Black/Afrikan and Irish). Overall, in Jimmy’s Hall, jazz is used to overcome alienation.

Meetings and debates are Ken Loach's auteur.

Meetings and debates are Ken Loach’s auteur.

On the contrary, Amy Winehouse’s engagement with jazz accelerated her alienation from her friends, family, and even her own creative freedom. For Amy, daughter of a taxi driver and a pharmacist from Britain, jazz was a means of upward class mobility. However, she was so successful in this attempt that she was forced to give up her privacy, health, and ultimately her life for fame. Though she became extremely wealthy, she had virtually no control over her life as she neared the end of her life, dictated by managers and record company executives. She could not even start her rehab until she fulfilled her contractual obligations, and in one occasion she was kidnapped from her flat and flown to Serbia to perform at a concert (albeit unsuccessfully), when her health was significantly deteriorating.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse

Despite these differences, both films take a tragic direction as Jimmy and his comrades are prosecuted for resisting the hall’s closure and opposing the Catholic Church allied with the Irish “Free State” (watch this film to learn more about the history of this alliance). Jimmy is arrested and deported back to the U.S.A, a permanent alienation from his homeland and beloved community. Amy becomes isolated and taken advantage of by her parasitic father and a boyfriend, who allegedly introduced her to hard drugs while riding the gravy train.

Unlike Jimmy’s Hall, which is set in a time when jazz was political and subversive, Amy takes place in a time when jazz has become commercialized, de-politicized, and even whitewashed. Ironically, however, most of her remaining allies near the end of her life were progressive Black artists (i.e Yasim Bey and Questlove) and her bodyguard who is also Black. Despite her commercial success and distance from the revolutionary roots of jazz culture, she is seemingly aware of her music’s popular appeal when she responds to a TV host who asks if her upcoming album is “accessible.” Her answer is along the lines of: “Yeah I guess it’s accessible. Not poppy, but accessible. Jazz has become an exclusive, elitist music.”

Explicitly socialist realist orientation of Jimmy’s Hall may be a strange comparison to a biography of a celebrity. Still, the ways in which these two films overlap with and contradict one another around the themes of jazz and alienation are interesting to me. Both films are now playing at the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon.

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