'Ronnie's': Film Review | DOC NYC 2020

Ronnies
Freddy Warren
Minor-key, but a haunting melody.

Oliver Murray's documentary tribute to the storied London jazz club and its namesake founder includes clips of Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and more doing what they did best.

As venues around the world open and shutter in sync with the fits and starts of local pandemic containment measures, it's reassuring to know that one of London's most cherished institutions, the jazz club Ronnie Scott's, founded in 1959, is still chugging along. (It's reopening after a short lockdown again Dec. 4 for socially distant business.) British director Oliver Murray salutes the club, its music, guests, fans and the people who ran it, especially co-founder, namesake and front-of-house-emcee Ronnie Scott himself, with Ronnie's, a well-measured, if somewhat muted and minor-key-melancholy, tribute.

The feature, Murray's second after Bill Wyman profile The Quiet One, has streamed as part of the DOC NYC program this year and screened in mid-November on the BBC in the U.K. But that shouldn't stop it from having an afterlife at further festivals and on other platforms, especially as interest in jazz seems to be on an upswing lately. In fact, although the focus is on one particular nightclub and its owner, the film acts as an accessible slice of jazz history that might usefully entice viewers to learn more.

Certainly the generously edited chunks of performance, culled from archive material, should serve as a further seduction for jazz newbies. The opening minute dives in with Oscar Peterson on the piano, looking sweaty and grand in a blue-jacquard smoking jacket, and then just keeps going, with regular shots of showmanship from singers up front such as Sarah Vaughan, Cleo Laine, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald to legendary drummer Buddy Rich at the back and every kind of musician in between. Miles Davis in the late '60s croons moodily in a dark, grainy shot. Later, '70s-vintage Van Morrison sings an oddly phrased rendition of "Send in the Clowns," accompanied by Chet Baker on the trumpet. Further illustrating the breadth of music booked at the club, there are recollections of what was to be Jimi Hendrix's last performance, heard here from a bootleg tape made by interviewee Bill Baker, as he jammed onstage with Eric Burdon and War the night he died.

Come for the classic jams but stay for the story of Ronnie Scott. Murray and editor Paul Trewarthur deftly toggle between the archive footage and the overarching story of Scott, a scion of London's East End when it was still predominantly Jewish and poor (instead of multicultural and hip like it is today). A strong saxophonist who made a mark on the small British jazz scene, Scott played in orchestras on the trans-Atlantic liners between the U.K. and New York after World War II just so he could get a chance to see the jazz clubs on Manhattan's 52nd Street. That inspiration led to the establishment of the first Ronnie Scott's jazz club on Gerrard Street in London's Soho (it moved in 1965 to Frith Street, where it remains today).

With testimony from Scott's surviving exes Mary Scott and Francoise Venet, as well as his daughter Rebecca and the family of Scott's late business partner Peter King, with whom he started the club, the story is gradually unfolded, told almost entirely through voiceovers. Although it would have been interesting to see musicians Quincy Jones and Georgie Fame — as well as journalists Michael Parkinson and John Fordham and the like — the voice-only strategy allows the film to pack in even more archive footage, not just of the club but also swoon-inducing shots of Soho in its sleazy heyday.

It's those little glimpses of not-so ancient history that make the film particularly fascinating. Some viewers might have wondered if a different film could be made that would connect the club with the storied demi-monde that peaked and waned alongside it, especially the other late-night drinking clubs — The Colony Room, The French House, Groucho's, Gerry's and, later, Soho House — that shared clientele with Ronnie's. On the other hand, the focus on Scott himself allows Murray to retell a sad story, one as old as jazz itself if not older, of self-destruction and self-medicated depression that lay waste to a great talent. Surely, a biopic will follow.

Venue: DOC NYC 
Production: An Abacus Media Rights presentation of a Goldfinch production in association with Orofena Films
With: Rebecca Scott, Mary Scott, Walter Houser, Michael Parkinson, Gilles Peterson, Quincy Jones, Georgie Fame, Barbara Jay, Simon Cooke, John Fordham, Lenny Breslaw, Paul Pace, Francoise Venet, Bruce Fleming, Chris King, Val Wilmer, Howard E. Scott, Bill Baker
Director/screenwriter/co-producer: Oliver Murray
Producer: Kirsty Bell
Executive producer: Phil McKenzie
Director of photography: Ben Thomas
Editor: Paul Trewarthur
Music: Alex Heffes
Music supervisor:
Sales: Abacus Media Rights

103 minutes