Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America (2012)New York Film Festival 2012

Mostly pointless documentary on drummer Chick Webb and the legendary Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Its full of grand words on Webb and the ballroom  but little in the way of information

I have suggested that I could tweet all of the major points in the film related to Webb and if I wanted to I probably could reduce it - but here are the major facts:

-He broke his back and was left stunted and a hunchback.
-He was told to take up drumming to strengthen his upper body
-He was good to everyone and was well respected
-He married
-He discovered Ella Fitzgerald
-He became the lead attraction at the Savoy which was the only integrated club in New York
-He died due to his various health problems.

That's about it. Most other details are lacking.

The first word I heard about the film was a bad word against the film because it had only 6 seconds of film footage with Webb. I thought the person saying it was daft- and then I saw the film and realized that the 6 seconds is the least of the films problems.

The screening I attended, my first public screening at this years New York Film Festival was an odd affair. Some earlier screening had started late and they lined us up in some sort of weird looping way outside of the theater. It actually made sense if you thought about it, it would keep everyone safe it rained, but it bent your mind if you were trying to find the end of the line since there was three ends.

What I liked was that the line was filled with not only people connected to the film, but also people who knew Webb and who had danced at the Savoy. Memories were flowing as everyone talked as they waited.

Inside the mood was expectant. I sat two rows behind Tyne Daley who provided one of the voices for the film.

After an introduction by the director, who introduced a good number of tangentially connected people (Chick Webb's cousins for example) the film started....

Its an enjoyable little film which the audience really seemed to like.

I kind of liked it too, except that the almost complete lack of any real information began to wear on me. Most of the talking heads and quotes read aloud by big celebrities only told you how great Webb was. They gave you a few facts, mostly it was how wonderful Webb was and how wonderful it was to be at the Savoy.


I had only minimal sense of Webb's life. I learned about the big concerts, the NBC contracts, but  about the man or his family I learned little....worse I have no idea who many of the people quoted are. Who is Tyne Daley's character in the larger scheme of things? How about her husband? Why are they important ? Yes she was his publicist and he was a critic but who are they historically. The same goes for other characters, who is say the person Billy Crystal voices? Why is their word important?

And yes it's mostly stills of Webb. There is only a fleeting shot of Webb in motion at the end. ...

The film is not so much a biography of either Webb and the Savoy rather it's a testimonial to their greatness and importance. It's like listening to a victory celebration where we are told that some one is great... but we never really learn why.

The film ended to thunderous applause and the Q&A started....

...that was a good thing and a bad thing. It was good because after a brief talk by the director, Tyne Daley and a producer,They had  the son of the owner of the Savoy and one of the Savoy dancers come on stage. It was bad because I suddenly realized how much the director didn't know. These two people who began to talk and talk and talk  told all sorts of things about who people were and the way things were. I got a better sense from listening to them than I did from the film....

...and then the audience questions started and somewhere about the point where the people on stage were asked about Webb's wife that I lost all respect for the film and the director. Here's a man who has just made a biography (nominally) of one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived and he had no idea what happened to Webb's wife. "Well you know people sometimes just disappeared..." The people he brought on stage knew...

How can you make a film about  subject and then answer the question in such away that makes you sound like you only knew about some of your subject. I've seen many documentarians in my life and I have never once had the feeling they only had a partial knowledge of their subject before. I've seen bad films where after talking to or listening to the director you realize that they knew their subject in the minutest detail which never made it on the screen. I've seen great films where the directors endless knowledge seemed to make a great film better, never until Saturday's screening did I hear a director who didn't seem to know his subject. I mean not only didn't he seem to know about the wife of his subject, he was corrected several times by the very people he put on stage. No wonder the film isn't particularly insightful, the director doesn't seem to know his subject.

I'm disappointed.

And as for the music that changed America, I learned next to nothing since the film doesn't really explain that too well either other than to say that the Savoy was integrated and Webb started to play for white folks...


I'm disappointed. While not a bad film, the talking heads and the music do make it an enjoyable viewing experience, the film is a damn near failure as a documentary about anything since it's 95 minutes with too many platitudes and not enough facts.


  1. Thanks Steve for posting your observations on the documentary, I've been waiting for it to come out on DVD so I could see it.

    I know it's been awhile but do you remember whether they claimed he died at age thirty in 1939? It has been believed he was born in 1909 when in fact a little research proves he was born in 1905.

    1. I don't remember off hand. If I can find my notes-which may not be possible since they may be in storage- I'll post in a reply. If nothing appears in a day or two I haven't found anything