Review by Sean Boelman
Like any concert documentary, one’s appreciation of Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day is amplified if one is a fan of the music it contains. However, the thing that has made Stern’s film so legendary is that, even if one isn’t a fan of jazz, it’s next to impossible not to be impressed by the sheer level of craft on display.
The movie presents the highlights of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which featured performances from some of the biggest names in music at the time, many of whom have gone on to be among the most iconic musicians of all time. Jazz fans will obviously delight in getting to see this pristine performance footage, but the film is also interesting in its own right.
In a way, the movie almost serves as a snapshot of the time in which it takes place. Of course, it pales in comparison in this aspect to the more recent greats of the genre like Michael Wadleigh’s masterpiece Woodstock (which would come eleven years later and seems to owe a lot to Stern), but here, Stern sets the precedent for a zeitgeisty film about an era’s music.
At under an hour and a half long, the movie truly is just the highlights of the festival. On one hand, this makes it a lot more palatable for casual music fans who want to check it out, but it also creates a feeling of something being left on the table. Some of the performances are so brilliant that one won’t want them to stop.
As one would expect, the clear highlight of the film is Louis Armstrong’s performance. Yet Stern puts this pinnacle in an odd position, with performances surrounding it that are good but hardly match Armstrong’s brilliance. As a result, everything that comes afterwards is underwhelming and the movie loses much of its steam.
It also would have been interesting to see more non-performance footage. Prior to Armstrong’s performance, there is a brief bit of an interview in which he tells a story to the audience (and therefore the camera). It’s a magical moment, and perhaps the one that most makes the viewer feel as if they were actually there.
Of course, the restoration here is absolutely magnificent. Stern and crew did a wonderful job of capturing the footage and getting to see it restored in 4K is quite the experience. It’s definitely disappointing that a lot of theaters aren’t open at the moment — getting to see this on the big screen would be amazing — but it’s still beautiful even on a smaller format.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day is by all means a seminal music documentary, and this restoration is one not to miss. It’s easy to see how Stern’s approach to these performances shaped the way that the concert doc genre would be for years to come.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day screens in partnership with indie theaters beginning August 12. A list of participating locations can be found here.