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Django 2017

Django Reinhardt | Django Melodies


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Django

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The story of Django Reinhardt, famous guitarist and composer, and his flight from German-occupied Paris in 1943.

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About Django 💬


A musician's struggle to survive and save the gypsy melodies of his guitar in between the war.

1943, occupied Paris. Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) is at the pinnacle of his art. The brilliant and carefree jazz guitarist, king of ethereal swing, plays to standing-room-only crowds in the capital’s greatest venues. Meanwhile, his gypsy brethren are being persecuted throughout Europe.

His life takes a turn for the worse when the Nazi propaganda machine wants to send him on tour in Germany...

The directorial debut from Etienne Omar tells the extraordinary life story of legendary French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and his adventures trying to flee from Nazi persecution during World War II.

  • AN INTERVIEW WITH ÉTIENNE COMAR

Q: What was the origin of your desire to make a movie about Django Reinhardt?

Etienne Comar: For a long time, I wanted to paint the portrait of a musician at grips with the torments of existence. When I was about 40, I plunged back into music by participating in a rock band with some friends, and what an experience! I loved it. It was fascinating. I had forgotten how easily you can isolate yourself from the outside world when you're playing music. All of us were at rather complicated times in our lives, and we got ourselves out of those complications by having fun playing music together. The time and space of musical creation is a drug that literally grabs hold of you.

And then I thought of a discussion I had as a teenager with my father, who was a great admirer of Django himself. While he was a young man during the war, he listened to his music and forgot about the German Occupation as long as a record, or the dance lasted. And then there was my young nephew, who was learning guitar and began playing numbers by Django like crazy. I figured that trans-generational music like that, with its charm and immediate pleasure, possesses something bewitching, vital and salutary. All of those were reasons that made me want to plunge into the life of Django Reinhardt.

Q: Why did you focus on the years of Occupation?

Etienne Comar: Because that period of his life is a good example of how music can remove us from the world. Django was at the height of success, the swing was officially banned, Gypsies were being persecuted all across Europe, but Django didn't seem to notice. And then, that period of his life is not very well known - we know more about what came after, when he left for the United States. Or about the fire in his caravan, or his duo with Grappelli. I didn't want to make a biopic about Django, with a cursory look at his entire life. I was more interested in finding the right approach. This period from the summer of 1943 to the Liberation allowed me to touch on themes that are my own and that affect me, notably his blindness as an artist, and his later becoming aware of what was going on, as an artist.

Q: The prologue of DJANGO is emblematic of your vision of music as a bubble that can blind you to what is going on around you.

Etienne Comar: I actually conceived of the first sequence of the film as an ''overture'' in the musical sense of the term. It foreshadows what the film is going to be about, with a blind musician who refuses to hear the danger that is approaching, and so much so that it costs him his life. That is not exactly what will befall Django in the film, but it does sum it all up a bit metaphorically.

His cultural background also explains Django unawareness. In Gypsy communities, war is never their concern. It concerns Gadjé (non-Gypsies). Gypsies have no territory, little sense of property, and any strife that arises is resolved within the confines of the community. Which partly explains their marginality during the Second World War. Even today, it is hard for them, unlike the Jewish community, to speak about the disaster they survived. For the most part, they live in the present, they rarely look back. There exists no real history of the Gypsy community, as there does for certain other communities.

Q: We first see Django onstage, during a long musical sequence...

Etienne Comar: Yes, because Django is, above all, music. We wanted to introduce him simply, show him doing what he does best. And how he does it, with his talent, disdain, ruggedness, passion, detachment, genius... Because he was all that. Can all that comes across in a sequence of only seven minutes in which he plays music? I hope so.

As is often the case with talented creators, Django was a heap of contradictions. I like the idea that the audience never quite understands him in the first part of the film, that there isn't anything overtly psychological, that each scene contradicts whatever just went before. Sometimes he's funny, sometimes he's unpleasant, charming, angry, cowardly... But his music ties all that together as the film goes on, and we gradually begin to feel empathy with him. Throughout the story, the challenge was to keep the music from becoming merely illustrative, to let it establish itself as a vector of the action and the protagonist's emotions.

Q: How did you come to choose Reda Kateb to play Django?

Etienne Comar: There were other possible actors for the role, but Reda is probably one of the most talented actors of his generation. He simultaneously combines insouciant charm and a certain gravitas. And that's what the role required. Cocteau said that Django was ''a gentle savage''. Reda incarnates that perfectly. And besides, I felt that he hadn't yet had his ''great role'' in the movies. And so it was as much a challenge for him as for me, directing my first film. That only made our shared adventure all the more exciting.

I asked him to get a grasp of his character primarily by the way he played the guitar. Everything else should flow from his ease with music, his insolence, vivacity... And so he spent a year learning to play the guitar and plunged into Django's universe from that angle. His characterization, language, love of clothes, handicap, the Gypsy community, it all came of that. As a professional, Reda puts great demands on himself. He played the role to the hilt. It was a great joy to work with him.

Q: Does he actually play the musical numbers?

Etienne Comar: Reda worked for a year to be able to perform the numbers, but obviously not with Django's dexterity and timbre. And so I asked the brilliant jazz artist Stochelo Rosenberg, who plays in a trio with his brothers, to record all the numbers and to cover Reda. I gave them both contemporary recordings of Django's playing that I liked to refer to. And I think that these new recordings made especially for the film prove that Django's music hasn't aged one bit.

Q: To what point did you insist on Reda Kateb's imitating Django?

Etienne Comar: Aside from his records, there are very few documents: three hundred photos and two minutes of films. The general public does not have much of an idea about what he looked like, unlike the much more popular Ray Charles or Serge Gainsbourg... Quite the contrary, even. As far as personality goes, Reda is pretty much our own personal Django. I reused things I liked about him in my own way.

Q: Django is surrounded by strong women: his mother, his wife, his mistress...

Etienne Comar: That's what's so fascinating about certain great male artists: they are surrounded by women, and each one of them has fundamental importance. In the film, Django is pretty macho, but his life is run by women. His mother negotiates his contracts, his wife decides when they're leaving, motivated by his mistress... The Gypsy community has some very virile values, but at the same time, it is a matriarchy.

Q: The character of the mother is very colorful...

Etienne Comar: Django's mother, Negros, was an unbelievable little woman. Her husband was gone, so the musician and dancer brought her children up rough and tumble. She was the first to be convinced of Django's genius, which supported the family as he became a teenager.

His mother is played by Bimbam Merstein, a Gypsy who had a small role in Tony Gatlif's Swing, but who is not at all an actress. Bimbam is also a musician and dancer, she has the exact same profile as Django's mother. We were very lucky, and it was a great joy to film such an exceptional temperament and personality. She's lived through so much. She's larger than life.

Q: And Bea Palya who plays his wife?

Etienne Comar: Bea Palya is a Gypsy singer of Hungarian origin. She is not an actress either. Her very plump physique really reminds me of Django's wife, Naguine. To play the musicians of Django's group, the Hot Club de France, I again chose not to use actors, but real musicians. Reda had to be surrounded by professionals who wouldn't be just pretending and play, in order to motivate him even more. And then they're new faces, but credible for the period. It makes things all the more believable.

Q: And the choice of Cécile de France to embody Louise, Django's mistress?

Etienne Comar: I had thought of several actresses, and then I organized a meeting between Cécile and Reda. I wanted to see if they made a workable couple. When I saw them together, it all seemed obvious. They were immediately playing off each other's charm. I wanted a ''movie'' couple. Django liked to go to the movies in the big motion picture palaces around Pigalle. He was a fan of Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson, Clark Gable... All of his obsessions with fancy clothes, classy suits, come of that fascination for the movies of the 30s. I thought it would be fun to recreate a glamorous ''American-style'' couple. They are absolute opposites, but believable as a couple. Cécile bowled me over with the precision of her acting, the freshness she brought to words that may have looked a little stiff on paper. With her, our work consisted essentially of toning down her very natural lightheartedness, to bring out a more somber facet of her personality. To bring out some of that mystery that surrounds tragic lovers in film noir.

Q: Louise is also a very emancipated woman, she comes, she goes...

Etienne Comar: I love free women you can never tie-down. Django had a lot of admirers, lovers. He was a ladies' man. We think that several people helped him escape to Switzerland, but we find no reference to anyone in his life exactly like Louise. The real fictional character in the film is Louise! It is also one of the few things that remain from Alexis Salatko's book. But when we were writing the screenplay, and inventing the character, I thought a lot about Lee Miller. She was that kind of woman: Man Ray's muse, an it-girl in the Paris of the 30s, unbelievably independent and involved in the war, a forerunner of feminism, and never to be found where you would expect to find her.

Q: The presence of Django's monkey permeates the film.

Etienne Comar: Django had a monkey named Joko. We fictionalized his existence a little to convert him into a symbolic figure. He was so fond of the monkey and its bells, that he gave it a guitar. It was kind of his double. It may seem ridiculously grotesque, but it is only when his monkey is mistreated that Django realizes how urgent it has become to react. Destroying his monkey is tantamount to destroying his soul. Gypsies are of Indian origin and in India, monkeys are extremely important, in particular, the protective deity Hanuman. It was the opposite for the Nazis, who had an aversion for this animal that for them symbolized degenerateness. It's always fun to combine history with a capital H and human interest stories.

Q: Django tells the story of a man recovering from his blindness, but it also immerses us in the head of a creator, particularly in the second half, when he composes his Requiem...

Etienne Comar: The government in Vichy forbade pilgrimages to Saintes Maries de la Mer in 1941, much to the Gypsies' despair. As for Django, he did not think it normal that his community did not have its own funeral music, composed by a Gypsy composer. And what he experienced at the end of the war inspired him to compose that Requiem. Django did not see himself as being limited to entertaining music, light dance music, swing. He made several attempts to compose symphonic music. He was a great admirer of Bach, Debussy, Bartok... He remained very much abreast of the musical avantgarde, and was very fond of some sacred music. That ambivalence shines through in the composition of this Requiem.

As for the film, the question was to know when to hear that music, so that it never becomes merely illustrative, but always remains intimate and emotional. So that we always know that he is thinking of music.

Unlike some musicians and artists who are not politically committed, Django's growing awareness could be seen in the transformation of his music when he composes this Requiem, which I imagine as a kind of redemption. The character's limits touch me deeply. Django was not a hero. He did what he could with whatever means he had.

Q: The film ends with a concert performance of that Requiem at the Institut des jeunes aveugles in Paris, played on one single occasion, at the Liberation.

Etienne Comar: To my mind, the concert at the end was always the culminating point of the film. It is the only time that Django does not play. He just listens to his music. He isn't really capable of directing it, the shock of the emotion and the surprise force him to pause... He shuts his eyes, reopens them, awake and transported... A reminder of the blindness out of which he has finally emerged.

Q: And the ID photos of the Gypsies over which the film ends?

Etienne Comar: They are photos from the anthropometric registry of French Gypsies who were victims of the Vichy government and the German Army. We found them in the Archives of the Bouches du Rhône department.

It was our way of paying homage to those who Django dedicated his Requiem to: all of his brothers persecuted during the war. It was also a way to return to the real world, without using traditional stock footage. The names inscribed on the photos are those of the families who lived through this history. Which is obviously very unsettling.

Q: You have considerable experience as a producer and screenwriter, but this is your first film as a director. Why the desire to direct?

Etienne Comar: I had been considering it for years. What truly excites me more and more in my work as a producer and screenwriter, is the artistic creation. So it's a natural and logical evolution which took some time with me, but I like the idea that we all have our own rhythm. I just needed to find the right project to take the leap. When I began to write DJANGO, my love for the subject made me want to direct it. The important thing was to understand and tell Django's story, to find the intimate something that I have in common with him. I'm not a Gypsy, I was not alive during the war, I am not a guitarist, and I'm not a genius... But I am deeply moved by the conflict between his unfocused, constraining life at the time, and the artistic, mysterious aspirations that were beyond his grasp. Belief in his music was one of the few things he could hang onto, it was his art that kept him going when staring into the abyss and confronted with the disasters taking place around him. And love too...

DJANGO REINHARDT


Since his death in 1953, the music and unique style of Django Reinhardt have inspired the greatest guitarists in the world, whether they play Blues, Jazz, Pop, Country or Rock: Jimi Hendrix, BB King, George Benson, Joe Pass, Carlos Santana, John Mc Laughlin, Les Paul, Jimmy Page, Hank Marvin, Chet Atkins, Jef Beck, Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler... All consider him the first ''guitar hero'' and one of the most influential.

In France, along with Charles Trénet, Yves Montand, Boris Vian, Serge Gainsbourg, Sacha Distel and Georges Brassens, contemporary singers such as Jacques Higelin, Sanseverino, Zaz, or Thomas Dutronc, regularly pay homage to him.

A strange fate for a young Gypsy from the wastelands of Paris' outskirts, to conquer great theaters such as Paris' Olympia or the London Palladium, Paris' Salle Pleyel and New York's Carnegie Hall in New York. He was celebrated in his day by poets Pierre Reverdy, Anna de Noailles and Jean Cocteau, who nicknamed him ''the gentle savage'' or ''aerial sprite''. Django and his guitar...

His virtuosity was all the more legendary, since he had to overcome a terrible handicap. The Gypsy guitarist lost partial use of his left hand in a fire in his caravan in 1928. Django Reinhardt had already become a hero of legend in his youth: everyone, beginning with his family and friends, was subjugated by the dazzling virtuosity of the little banjo prodigy. Then he played with an accordion ensemble, and his reputation as an extraordinary instrumentalist spread like wildfire through the jazz world. That universe was more suitable for the blossoming of his musical ambitions, which came true on the guitar in 1934 with his Quintette du Hot Club de France and the violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Together they composed some astonishing masterpieces, such as Djangology, Tears or the biggest hit of the day, Minor Swing, all of which sound just as fresh today as they did back then.

His creative approach smacked of genius, and was related to his fantastic talent as an improviser, that confounded people such as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, while his dazzling mastery of his instrument fascinated guitarists around the world...

But when war broke out, it might be feared that his blazing ascension would be soon cut short. But on the contrary, during the Occupation, perhaps thanks to a kind of instinctive resistance, the extraordinary vogue of Swing à la française, symbolized by his guitar and new quintet - that now included a clarinet - kept him in the spotlight. And so much so, that his many popular successes, Nuages, Swing 42, Les yeux noirs, Douce ambiance or Mélodie au crépuscule attracted the attention of the German authorities. While the overly enthusiastic reactions of the young hipsters who mobbed his concerts were being censured, it was suggested in high places that he is sent on a tour in Germany.

It is just that dark and menacing period in 1943 that the film evokes, with Django's clandestine attempt to escape into Switzerland, and a number of other crazy adventures worthy of a fictional movie character. But for Django, the fact was often stranger than fiction.

After the Liberation of Paris in 1944, many of the GIs who had just arrived immediately enquired where they could finally see the amazing gypsy with his appealing two fingers style. Members of Glenn Miller's legendary big band knew what they were doing when they fought for the honor of playing with him, or simply listening to him play! But the Swing Era was definitely on the way out. The Americans had more than just Coke and chewing gum in their famous jeeps. They also brought the intriguing recordings of a certain Charlie Parker. Bebop came as an enormous shock, and in France Django alone immediately understood its importance and considered it a decisive (r)evolution. Now in direct contact with modern jazz, and adapting it as best he could to an electric guitar, Django multiplied his experiments: a tour in the USA with Duke Ellington (1946), jam sessions with Zoot Sims, Roy Eldridge (1950), Don Byas, Kenny Clarke (1951), his first modal experiment ten years before Miles Davis (Flèche d'or, 1952), a memorable concert with Dizzy Gillespie, or a last recording with Martial Solal a month before his death (1953).

And so this genius /autodidact who knew nothing about music theory left us, forty-three years old. When asked: ''Monsieur Reinhardt, you don't know anything about Music?'', he answered: ''No, but She knows all about me!''

A FEW DATES:

  • January 23, 1910, Jean Reinhardt was born in Liberchies, Belgium into a Gypsy (Manouche) family of itinerant musicians.

  • In the 1920s Django played banjo with exceptional dexterity. He regularly visited Paris dance halls and bistros in the Porte d'Italie and Porte de Clignancourt areas. His reputation was such that the greatest musicians fought over him. But the banjo would always remain an accompanying instrument behind the accordion.

  • He cut his first record in Paris in 1928 and signed a contract for a European tour with the famous Jack Hilton Orchestra. But on October 26th, he barely escaped death and lost the use of two fingers of his left hand in a fire in his caravan.

  • During his convalescence in a hospital (which lasted almost two years) his brother Joseph brought him a guitar, easier to handle than the banjo. Many thought he was lost to music for good, but he was stubborn and developed a new, unique playing technique (avoiding the use of his ring and little fingers). And so the guitar became his instrument.

  • As of 1930, Django focused on swing jazz and followed up on his intuition that the guitar had a role to play in jazz formations. Through the intermediary of painter and photographer Emile Savitry, he met Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman.

  • In 1933 Django's talent convinced Jean Sablon to hire him and impose him in recording studios, where he met violinist Stéphane Grappelli. At the same time, Django played the chic cabarets of Montparnasse, where he became the darling of the Paris art world: Cocteau, Kessel, De Kooning, the Delaunays, Poliakoff, Picasso...

  • With Stéphane Grappelli, he founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934, first managed by Charles Delaunay who would later become their impresario. The group also included his brother Joseph Reinhardt, as well as Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on the double bass. The formation was soon a resounding success.

  • As of 1935, concerts and recordings followed in quick succession (Swing from Paris, Djangology, Minor Swing, Tears, Swing 39, etc...). It was then that he also met and played with great American jazz musicians performing in Paris, such as Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, Bill Coleman, Benny Goodman. They were fascinated by his innovative, revolutionary use of the guitar in a jazz-swing formation. With Django, the guitar became a melodic instrument in its own right, giving it star billing for improvisations and radically new harmonic developments.

  • In 1937 Charles Delaunay founded the Swing label which was to record most of Django's discography.

  • Until 1939 the Quintet du Hot Club de France, under the aegis of Django and Stéphane Grappelli, spread his unique style during their many tours of France, Spain, Belgium, England, and Italy. But the declaration of war in September 1939 surprised the quintet while on tour in England. Stéphane Grappelli chose to remain in London, but Django returned to France.

  • During the war years 1939 - 43 Django formed a new quintet, replacing Stéphane Grappelli and his violin with a clarinet (Hubert Rostaing, and then Gérard Léveque aka ''La Plume''). Alone at the commands of the Quintet du Hot Club de France, he had his greatest successes (NUAGES - RYTHME FUTURE - BELLEVILLE - MÉLODIE AU CRÉPUSCULE - VENDREDI 13 - MANOIR DE MES RÊVES...). His popularity was considerable during the German Occupation, when Parisians and the French were starved for dance music. Django's swing was a kind of release. He also hobnobbed with the greatest stars of the day, the Prévert brothers, Rubirosa, Charles Trenet, Danièle Darrieux, Marlène Dietrich...

  • In June 1943 he married Sophie ''Naguine'' Ziegler with whom he had been living for fifteen years. At the same time, he was approached by the German Propaganda Office to perform in Germany. To escape, he fled to Switzerland via Thonon-les-Bains.

  • His son Babik was born in the summer of 1944, and he returned to Paris in the same year. The American landing on D-Day rapidly revolutionized European popular music. The onslaught of bebop, and a few years later rock, definitively put swing to rest.

  • In October 1946 he met Stéphane Grappelli in London. They recorded a version of the Marseillaise that provoked a scandal and was forbidden on the airwaves. That same year he was invited to take part in an American tour with Duke Ellington. Not used to playing with an amplified electric guitar, Django had a hard time eliciting perfect sound. Disappointed in his half-hearted success, and also due to his haphazard lifestyle, he returned to Paris in February 1947.

  • Having somewhat fallen out of fashion, Django virtually disappeared from the music scene between 1948 and 1951 to devote himself to his son Babik's education, painting and fishing... with the exception of a series of recordings with Grappelli in Italy, amounting to almost sixty titles, that may perhaps be considered a kind of reworking of his oeuvre.

  • In 1951 Django settled in Samois-sur-Seine near Fontainebleau. He played in the clubs of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and regularly recorded with the best of the French bebop musicians (Roger Guérin, Hubert and Raymond Fol, Pierre Michelot, Bernard Peiffer, Jean-Louis Viale) who were able to bring him out of ''retirement''. He finally adopted the electric guitar and nudged his playing style toward bebop.

  • In 1953 Django cut his last record, with Martial Solal, before succumbing on May 16th to a cerebral hemorrhage in Samois-sur-Seine in the middle of the forest of Fontainebleau.

Alain Antonietto Specialist in Gypsy music, culture and Django Reinhardt

Django Movie Details 🎥


Directed by

Etienne Comar

Writing Credits

Etienne Comar and Alexis Salatko (Screenplay)

Alexis Salatko (Novel)

Starring

Reda Kateb

Cécile de France

Bea Palya

Bimbam Merstein

Gabriel Mireté

Johnny Montreuil

Vincent Frade

Raphaël Dever

Hono Winterstein

Etienne Timbo Mehrstein

Levis Reinhardt

Alex Brendemühl

Pierre-Marie Rochefort-Schneider

Ulrich Brandhoff

Xavier Beauvois

Patrick Mille

Jan Henrik Stahlberg

Maximilien Poullein

Aloïse Sauvage

Antoine Laurent

Hugues Jourdain

Nestle Sztyglic

Esther Comar

Robert Schupp

Renardo Lorier

Jean-Louis Coulloc'h

Clémence Boisnard

Gilles Treton

Music by

Warren Ellis

Cinematography by

Christophe Beaucarne

Genres: Biography, Drama, Music, War

Country: France

Django Official Trailer



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