Cab Calloway: Sketches
60 Few musicians whom I grew up worshipping stand taller and prouder in my memory than Cab Calloway. With his big band swing-blues, his unconventional dance moves and his reefer-madness smile, he's a character so singular in American history that he seems sent from another dimension. So the prospect of a definitive documentary, one that digs at the roots of his sound, was an exciting one. Unfortunately, this is not that documentary. Instead, the aptly titled doc—which first appeared on French TV and includes some random but enjoyable animated sequences—treats it's titular bandleader as a bit of a cartoon character himself. Huge contextual puzzle pieces (where and when Cab was born, when and how he died, whether he made any money) are ignored in favor of tangents. Like any sketchbook, some pages here seem more focused than others: Calloway's grandson, who went into the family business and wears a zoot suit to his interview, gives an excited and detailed explanation of his grandpa's musical habits from drum beats to horn charts; the portion on Calloway's sister, Blanche, is fascinating; the portrait of the Harlem Renaissance pops with excitement. But by leaving out so many key details about the man's life, it feels as if the filmmakers' primary goal was myth-making. And maybe that's just more appealing than the truth. Cab Calloway was never born and he will never die. He's smoking reefers in a forgotten alley somewhere with Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Charles Mingus. Screens at the Whitsell Auditorium with The Last of the Blue Devils at 1 pm Saturday, Oct. 8.
The Devil's Box
78 The Devil's Box would be worth watching with the sound muted: As a collection of compelling faces, it is a wild success. From the old men with milky eyes and fleshy, pock-marked noses to the teenage girls with awkwardly inherited soft features who make befuddling denim-based fashion decisions, there's just so much to see here, so many subtle variations on a white (total minority count: one Asian girl) hillbilly theme. The Devil's Box is such a tender and well-made portrait of the low-key world of competitive fiddling—excuse me, competitive Texas fiddling—that one need not be enthused about fiddle music to soak in its charms. It's impossible not to get sucked in as the sweet, sheltered farm folk (actual quote: "It's real clannish, I guess you'd call it") let viewers into their barns, trucks and living rooms while they gear up for some friendly competition. After 90 minutes of merciless devil's box, though, anyone but the honkiest of honkies would feel like smashing a few of these red-state musicians' precious instruments. Director Jason Hammond has made a beautiful, lyrical film, but he's done so by avoiding issues of class, race and the outside world, and the resulting documentary can feel a little Forrest Gumpish for it. Of course, he has no shortage of slow-talking old-timers to set the mood for him. "It's the finest family pastime," one codger says, "and the kids are not out wandering the streets." Wait, Texas has streets? I must have missed that. Screens at the Whitsell Auditorium with Live at Preservation Hall: Louisiana Fairytale at 7 pm Tuesday, Oct. 11.
SEE IT: Reel Music 26 screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium and the Mission Theater on Friday-Sunday, Oct. 7-23. See full listings at nwfilm.org.