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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Syncopation (1942)
(Blu-ray & DVD Dual Format)


Starring: Rex Stewart, Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Alvino Rey, Dudley Dickerson, The Hall Johnson Choir, Joe Venuti, Todd Duncan and Leith Stevens
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £17.99 (Blu-ray & DVD Dual Format)
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 16 March 2020

As a light handed treatment of African-American experience in United States history, Syncopation, directed by William Dieterle, respected for his cinematically confident management of crowds, (he staged Max Reinhardt’s William Shakespeare's "A Midsummers Night's Dream", directed Juarez, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is also a glimpse of black talent segregated but essential to historic Hollywood product.

Black musicians gathered in apartments and tenements sequestered in the town’s southwest corner below the poverty row studios on Santa Monica Boulevard and usually west of Crescent Heights Avenue. These artists worked in the clubs all over L.A. night spots up and down the coast (all controlled by the Chicago Lakeshore Drive entity known as Music Corporation of America) and always on call to movie studio orchestras (like RKO) where talent occasionally did transcend colour. The quality of L.A. black music spoke for itself. Syncopation is a wartime effort to appreciate the “melting pot” tout of American culture. America liked to appreciate black music as long as its practitioners didn’t have to live next door or go to school with white kids.

White B-movie actors (Adolphe Menjou, Jackie Cooper, Bonita Granville, George Bancroft, Robert Benchley, Walter Catlett) are familiar faces to make white audiences feel comfortable while enjoying the beat. White usurpers of black artistic origination (Benny Goodman, Harry James, etc.) complete the safety net for those white audiences not to have to countenance too many black faces.

Yet the history of American music is here, sub Rosa yes, but unavoidable. An opening sequence shows white traders parleying with an African chief. In return for trinkets they get slaves. A chest full of leg irons shows what’s coming. Captees packed aboard sail ships. There is a moaning, a threnody of torment. This is the foundation for all American music: folk, gospel, blues, ragtime, swing, jazz, boogie-woogie, rock, ballads, rap. One can’t really think this rich trove came from English Pilgrims, can one? Or the Dutch? Think about it. (UK snobs know this is true if they listen to Greg Proops or the godmother of rock n’ roll Sister Rosetta Tharpe

The strength of African-American experience, its wealth, kilned over four centuries of suffering, bestows many blessings on America and the world, music among them. Syncopation is a time capsule and an attempt to do justice to this continuum of legacy. Its failure in terms of contemporary perspective should not let us overlook its timeless worth. A young black trumpeter’s mother does not want her boy to prostitute his talents outside the church in clubs and dives. Club owner King Jeffers (an ironically uncredited Rex Stewart who gets to deliver the premise of the movie and the whole American zeitgeist as well) tells her the young man’s music is a fire that will burn long after they’re dead and gone. She hears the truth of his sincerity and also his promise to watch out for her son. It’s a visionary moment. Delivered by uncredited actors it’s basically a Philip Yordan (screenplay) and William Dieterle hermeneutic awareness.

Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Gene Krupa, Harry James are the white artists who drew from this wealth and gave white audiences something they could call their own. Any real musician knew the source. When these musicians are autobiographically honest they tell us where they got their inspiration and learning. Not here though. Here they just play their part in the great stream of music that flows in America’s veins from the turn of the twentieth century, through prohibition, The Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II. That is why Syncopation is still worth your while.

So, is this a bad movie? Do you want to own it for your physical entertainment home library for the white boy and girl soap opera vignettes with second string actors long forgotten? No. It is what it is, a period platform of living musical grandeur whose fire keeps warming us to dance forever or comfort us like jazz on a rainy night, or mesmerize like Alex Ernst doing Sinatra covers and originals. It lives on. Just like King Jeffers said it would. The pervasiveness of African American soul is a gift that not only America but the whole world cannot resist embracing.

The Eureka 1080p on Blu-ray from a 2k restoration is lucently perfect. There is a collectors booklet for context and a fulsome essay by virtuoso Pasquale Iannone. This underscores how European consciousness understands the subject better than most American consumers.


John Huff

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