Feb. 11, 2018 at 4:44 p.m.
Review: DJANGO (2018)
Reda Kateb, Cécile de France, Beata Balya, BimBam Merstein, Gabriel Mirété, Vincent Frade, Johnny Montreuil, Raphaël Dever, Patrick Mille, Xavier Beauvois, Doctor Jazz.
Directed by Étienne Comar
Musicians including Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Dickey Betts, Jimi Hendrix, and Tony Iommi have all been influenced by Jean "Django" Reinhardt, one of the greatest guitarists of the twentieth century. His energetic way of strumming a guitar despite losing partial use of his left hand after a fire is a source of inspiration for every musician. Writer-director Étienne Comar chose to concentrate on the period of Django’s life during Germany’s occupation of France rather than a straight-out biopic. Reda Kateb (A Prophet) is fantastic as the acclaimed Belgian-born Romani French jazz guitarist in the film loosely adapted from the novel Folles de Django by Alexis Salatko.
Most of the film is based on Comar and Kateb’s interpretation of the musician that we know so little about when it came to his personal life. The music speaks for itself and in that sense Kateb, already a musician, took guitar lessons for over a year to prepare for the role. Gypsy jazz guitarist Stochelo Rosenberg does the playing heard in the film while French gypsy-style musician Christophe Lartilleu’s hands stood in for the close-ups. The illusion works as Kateb provides a first-rate performance that encompasses the spirit of Django Reinhardt.
The film’s opening scene featuring a group of gypsies camped out in the woods while the Nazi army closes in begins as a celebration of song as the children explore the woods while the musicians sing and play. The joyous moment is cut short as the Nazis begin to exterminate everyone in the caravan. The nomadic lifestyle of the gypsies threatened not only the Germans but also the French government who required them to carry an anthropometric nomad passbook. Comar pays homage to the Gypsies persecuted by the Vichy government and German Army by closing the film with actual photographs recovered in the Archives of the Bouches du Rhône.
The musical sequences in the film are thrilling to watch even when Django and his band, the Paris-based Quintette du Hot Club de France, are forced to play under strict guidelines at a social event for the German Army. The performance serves as a distraction for a daring escape by Django’s comrades in the film that is part WWII thriller.
If you’re looking for a Django Reinhardt documentary, you’ll find a ton of material on YouTube and even though “Django” is not a true biopic the film is a riveting look at a chapter in the musician’s life. The women portrayed in the film are strong characters especially Django’s pregnant wife Naguine (Bea Palya) and his mother Negros (played by the wonder Bimbam Merstei). Both women are real Gypsies who are also singers and musicians. Comar brings a level of authenticity to the film by using the non-actors who fortunately can also act. Django’s band in the film is also made up of real musicians rather than professional actors.
Django was fascinated by Clark Gable and Kateb plays the role with a bit of Gable machismo. The film also portrays the musician as existing in his own world paying little thought to what was happening around all around him during WWII. It’s only when Django’s life becomes directly affected by the Nazis that the musician opens his eyes to the horrors happening around the world. He becomes a changed man bent on helping his people.
Reda Kateb’s wonderful performance as Django Reinhardt goes a long way to satisfy fans and the film incorporates quite a few musical numbers to ground the film. The fictional sequences featuring a great supporting cast and plenty of tension even though it feels at times like Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.”
Comar’s foray into directing is a welcomed debut and a tribute to one of the greatest musicians that ever lived.
In limited release and currently available on VOD
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