The Savoy King: Film Review

Vibrant doc animates a Swing pioneer who's not nearly aswell known as he should be

Though unlikely to see many big-screen bookings outside the fest circuit, the doc is rewarding for any Swing fan.


SEATTLE - Thanks perhaps to a life that was painfully brief in comparisonto peers like Duke Ellington, Swing Era bandleader Chick Webb is underappreciated by casual music lovers. Jeff Kaufman's enjoyable, convincing The Savoy King seeks to remedy that, and will likely draw some attention solely for the startling lineup of actors providing voice-over talent. Though unlikely to see many big-screen bookings outside the fest circuit, the doc is rewarding for any Swing fan and, given some colorful and heartstring-pulling elements, will likely inspire filmmakers in the audience to wonder about biopic rights.

After he broke his back as a child and contracted TB of the spine, Webb's growth was stunted and he developed a hunched back. (Schoolmates said he walked like a chicken, hence the nickname.) Drumming was encouraged as a means of developing upper-body strength; and he worked it hard. Early in his career, Ellington himself first made Webb a band leader.

"All you have to do is collect the money, and bring me mine," Duke said, but Webb proved hell-bent on greatness.

Throughout the film, musicians -- both living, like Roy Haynes, and dead, via reminiscences read by DannyGlover, Andy Garcia, and Jeff Goldblum -- marvel at his insistence on paying for the best arrangements and his willingness to turn down lucrative gigs that required musical compromises.

"He outswung everything that could be swung," one contemporary exclaims, and the soundtrack backs her up. (So do a couple of film clips worth treasuring, and a slew of vintage photos conveying the man's irrepressibility.)

The doc's script relies almost wholly on first-hand accounts, newspapers and magazine articles from the period of Webb's reign. Kaufman conjures both the thrills of Harlem ("I wouldn't leave Harlem to go to Heaven," Haynes recalls people saying) and the segregation blacks faced even on their own turf. The Savoy Ballroom, where Webb became a fixture, is painted as an integrated haven, a serious music palace where Clark Gable could show up and, if he chose hobnobbing over dancing, be ignored by the youths busy birthing crazes like the Lindy on the dancefloor.

Bill Cosby, reading words attributed to Webb, highlights the marquee cast with a spirited but unhammy performance. A couple of casting choices are puzzling, though: Playing Ella Fitzgerald (who got her start with Webb and remained loyal to him), Janet Jackson offers a breathy, sass-free purr better suited to Marilyn Monroe.

Ten thousand people crowded the streets when Webb died at 30, and viewers may also be left wanting more of stories like those of the 1937 and '38 band-battles that left Benny Goodman and Count Basie (with Billie Holiday, no less) nursing their wounds. No doubt screenwriters are already busy weaving those tales into a showcase for some young actor willing to don a prosthetic hump for his shot at greatness.


Venue: Seattle International Film Festival
Production Companies: New Heritage Theater Group, SwingBud Films, SingleArrop Productions, Floating World Pictures
Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Jeff Kaufman
Producer: Lainie Cooke
Executive producers: David Hoffman, Jamal Joseph, Voza Rivers, AlanSieroty, Buddy Steves
Editor: Jamal El-Amin
No rating, 90 minutes