‘Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past’: Film Review

Vince Giordano_publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Carol Hughes

Vince Giordano_publicity - H 2016

It swings.

A documentary profiles a New York musician who’s been keeping vintage big-band jazz alive and well for 40 years, in concert venues and onscreen.

As this spirited film portrait makes vibrantly clear, Brooklyn native Vince Giordano doesn’t just play vintage jazz — he has devoted his life to it, amassing the sheet music for 60,000 big-band arrangements that otherwise would have moldered away in landfills or attics. It’s no wonder Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes, among other directors, have relied on him for the right period sound, or that he played a crucial role, onscreen and off, in the early seasons of Boardwalk Empire.

With their affectionate tribute to this tireless aficionado of American music of the 1920s and ’30s, filmmakers Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards celebrate the music itself as well as the niche of New York nightlife that Giordano and his Nighthawks have carved out. But Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past also shines a light on the nuts, bolts and sheer perseverance of life as a working musician.

Following Giordano over a three-year period, the directors capture the bandleader and multi-instrumentalist (tuba, bass sax and double bass) as he makes the radio rounds (Fresh Air, Prairie Home Companion) and as he leads his 11-piece band through their twice-weekly shows at a Manhattan theater-district hotel. With a new set for every show and as many as 2,500 arrangements on tap, the musicians need to be on their toes. It’s a challenge they welcome and a gig that makes them proud, according to the succinct interviews that punctuate the performances and behind-the-scenes footage.

The filmmakers are there for the group’s show at the experimental-jazz mecca of the Newport festival, where they’re an anomaly in their tuxes, and for the band meeting when Giordano shares the news that their midtown venue — a place that he personally helped to dust off and spiff up — is shutting down. There’s a rousing rendition of Rhapsody in Blue on the occasion of its 90th anniversary and a thoroughly engaging Boardwalk Empire recording session with David Johansen. There are also alarming images suggesting a dwindling audience, but the film ends on an especially satisfying high note.

Most of the Nighthawks are middle-aged like Giordano, who was born in 1952, and some have been with him for a quarter-century. The band’s 40-year history has hardly been an uninterrupted one, though, with numerous firings and wholesale “purges,” as one musician smilingly calls them. The reasons for these breaks have varied, but at certain points it seems that Giordano embraced the chance to be a sideman for a while and step away from the business pressures; he and his significant other, Carol Hughes, handle all managerial duties when the band is together.

For anyone who appreciates early jazz and swing, Giordano’s lifelong passion is welcome on dual fronts: the history he’s preserving and curating through the voluminous archives in his side-by-side Brooklyn houses, and the new energy he’s breathing into a century-old lineage through masterful, joyous performance. A millennial interest in “trad jazz” has given the Nighthawks an everything-is-new-again following, putting them at the center of a retro-fueled social scene.

Davidson and Edwards see the beauty of this fervent nostalgia, but also its place within the context of Giordano’s career, which by his own account peaked in the ’80s, when he could easily employ three bands’ worth of musicians. The directors never lose sight of the struggles and the hard work that go along with his calling.

With his exacting attention to the notations of long-dead arrangers, there’s no question that this bandleader is a perfectionist, but it’s still jarring to witness his minor meltdown onstage at the New York Hot Jazz Festival over a missing piece of equipment. During the mini-rant, Davidson’s camera observes the good-humored signals of discomfort in the bandmembers’ faces. Moments later, as if to encapsulate four decades of unpredictable ups and downs, the film showcases an ecstatic performance that leaves the audience breathless and, poignantly, finds Giordano taken aback by the ardent response.

Distributor: First Run Features
Production companies: Hudson West Productions
Directors-producers: Dave Davidson, Amber Edwards
Director of photography: Dave Davidson
Editor: Amber Edwards

Not rated, 90 minutes