J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Max Rose: Jerry Lewis Plays a Jazz Musician without Jazz

Max Rose only recorded one trio session back in the day, apparently for the esteemed Riverside Records, making him a contemporary of legends like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Randy Weston, Dr. Billy Taylor, Kenny Drew, and Wynton Kelly. Unfortunately, Rose went one-and-done for the label, putting him in the solitary company of overlooked talents like Roosevelt Wardell. Yet, Rose still led a rewarding life, mainly thanks to his wife and great love Eva. Unfortunately, the grieving Rose will start to question the truth of their relationship after her death in Daniel Noah’s Max Rose (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Eva was the love of Max Rose’s life. After her passing, Rose clearly starts deteriorating mentally and physically, despite the efforts of his beloved granddaughter Annie. Already struggling with depression, Rose suffers a further blow when he discovers Eva’s favorite compact was a gift from a man who was not himself. A bit more digging amongst her effects yields a devastating revelation: Eva had agreed to meet the mysterious Ben Tracey while the musician was in New York for his fateful recording session.

Frustratingly, Max Rose is yet another film about a jazz musician made by a filmmaker who has zero confidence in the music the title character would have played. Instead of logically giving us a jazz soundtrack, we get saccharine background music instead. Occasionally, we hear hints of Rose’s recording, but never enough to understand his musical personality. Perhaps must baffling, Max Rose boasts a brand new song from Michel Legrand and lyricists Alan & Marilyn Bergman (they collaborated on a little tune called “The Windmills of Your Mind”) performed by Melissa Errico, but it is buried in the closing credits. It is nice, but not their best work. (Online reports suggest Legrand had in fact composed a full score for the film, much more befitting the central character, but it was perversely replaced with its current dull mushy themes. If that is true, it was a horrendous, unforgivable decision.)

Look, film music does matter. Jerry Lewis is a legend and his performance as Rose is considerably better than you might have heard, but without the right music, viewers will never understand why Rose is so clearly defined by his one recording session. That elevator music actually puts Lewis at a distinct disadvantage. Nevertheless, he is rather soulful as Rose and he develops some genuinely touching chemistry with Kerry Bishé as the loyal granddaughter. Yet, it is his nuanced work with Kevin Pollak as Rose’s semi-estranged son that really helps save the film.

Arguably, Lewis, Bishé, and Pollak all contribute awards caliber work, but it comes in such a bland package. Frankly, watching the film is a maddening experience because it is so blatantly obvious how it could have been dramatically improved. In recent years, we have mourned the loss of a number of great musicians from Rose’s generation (or later). Sadly, the amazing Bobby Hutcherson is probably the latest. Max Rose could have been a zeitgeisty film about the passing of the Blue Note-Riverside-Prestige era, but instead it just wants to be a geriatric melodrama. Recommended only for Jerry Lewis fans, Max Rose opens this Friday (9/2) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

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