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SF Jewish film fest focus: finding common ground

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“Body and Soul: An American Bridge” is among several show business-themed movies in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. (Courtesy photo)
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With more than 3,000 recorded versions, the jazz classic “Body and Soul” is one of the most popular works in American musical history. It’s also the focus of a centerpiece film in the 37th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, opening today at the Castro Theatre and running through Aug. 7 in The City, Palo Alto, Albany and San Rafael.

Directed by Robert Philipson, “Body and Soul: An American Bridge,” explores how Jewish and African-American cultures found common ground through song.

Ironically, when Jewish composer Johnny Green wrote “Body and Soul” in 1930, the song’s then-racy lyrics left it without takers in the United States; it gained popularity here — with Louis Armstrong’s 1930 recording and Libby Holman’s theatrical version on Broadway — after it appeared in the United Kingdom.

“The history of ‘Body and Soul’ in the movie is the pre-history of the song’s fame in the jazz canon,” says Philipson. “When Coleman Hawkins did his version in 1939 it became the gold standard of sophisticated, stylistic improvisation, and every tenor saxophonist after him had to master it, show that they could do their own version; from there the song spread throughout the repertoire, and every major jazz musician has performed it.”

Hawkins’ innovative rendition is a favorite of Bay Area bandleader, composer, bassist and arranger Marcus Shelby, whose quartet performs after the film’s Sunday screening at the Castro.

“When I think about the Hawkins recording and his approach to the song without losing the integrity of melody, I never get tired of listening to it, and I always seem to hear something new,” says Shelby, an artist-in-residence with the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. “Because I know the melody and the way Hawkins dances around it, it’s like he’s having a conversation with himself.”

Although Hawkins and Armstrong are African-Americans whose influence was profound, the resonance between black and Jewish communities was rooted in respective experiences of bondage and discrimination, and, Shelby says, a reverence for the Old Testament first expressed musically in black spirituals.

He also emphasizes blacks’ and Jews’ shared sense of the blues.

“I’m not talking about the 12-bar blues, I’m talking about tension and release and how moods capture an experience,” Shelby explains. “So if you have common experiences, historical, current or otherwise, then the music captures that and its essence through those blues, through tension and release, through melodies that shape that character.”

Musical collaboration between blacks and Jews had groundbreaking consequences, notably in 1935, when Benny Goodman recorded “Body and Soul” and formed his trio, which included black pianist Teddy Wilson.

Shelby’s explanation for the integration: “Radio has a funny way of hiding racial identity and if the music sounds good, it sounds good. People don’t know who’s playing it, and so as recordings became more popular in the 1920s and 30s, this encouraged bands to be more forward-thinking.”

IF YOU GO
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.
When: July 20 through Aug. 6
Tickets: $13 to $75
Contact: (415) 621-0523, www.sfjff.org
Note: Screenings also are at Albany Twin in Albany, Cinearts in Palo Alto and Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

SELECT HIGHLIGHTS

Keep the Change: The opening night film by Rachel Israel is an American romantic comedy about adults on the autism spectrum. (6:30 p.m. July 20, Castro)

Big Sonia: The documentary focuses on Sonia Warshawski, a Holocaust survivor who, at age 90, still runs a tailor shop and speaks publicly about her wartime experiences with schoolchildren and prisoners. [4:10 p.m. July 23, Castro]

Body and Soul: An American Bridge: Robert Philipson’s documentary explores the common bonds between blacks and Jews, through song. (6:45 p.m. July 23 at the Castro; 6:10 p.m. July 24 in Palo Alto; 3:55 p.m. July 28 in Albany)

Dina: The centerpiece documentary by Antonio Santini profiles Dina and Scott, a suburban Philadelphia couple with developmental disabilities. (6:10 p.m. July 25, Castro)

1945: The film by Ferenc Torok set in a remote Hungarian town just after World War II explores how the deportation of Jews led to gain for their gentile former neighbors, and later, paranoia, guilt and enduring anti-Semitism. (6:20 p.m. July 26, Castro)

Joe Berlinger: The documentary filmmaker receives the freedom of expression award at a screening of “Intent to Destroy,” his 2017 film, a chronicle of the Armenian genocide. (6 p.m., July 27, Castro)

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story: The Castro closing night film centers on the famed 1930s pinup star — who also was a scientist and inventor — and includes an appearance by her son. (8 p.m., July 30, Castro)

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