The documentarian Brigitte Berman has made two spectacular pictures about American jazz pioneers. The first, “Bix: ‘Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet’” (1981), chronicled the life of the brilliant and tragically short-lived cornetist and composer Bix Beiderbecke. It screened in a restoration at Film Forum a couple of years back. Now, her follow-up to that movie, “Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got” (1985), is similarly restored and booked at Film Forum.
Shaw, the clarinetist and bandleader, was a devotee of Beiderbecke, and is interviewed in Berman’s Beiderbecke film. When Shaw walked away from music for a first time, early in what would be a lengthy but nevertheless self-truncated jazz career, he tried to write a novel about Bix. He couldn’t complete it, he says here, because the story had “depth and connotation that I wasn’t philosophically or mentally prepared to cope with.”
Shaw was not only a self-taught virtuoso but also often the smartest guy in any room he was in. When he came back to the bandstand, his recording of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” was a smash hit of the swing era. An unselfconscious civil rights pioneer, he hired the Black singer Billie Holiday to sing with him at a time when that just wasn’t done.
Charming as well as erudite, he married eight times, to Lana Turner and Ava Gardner among others. The marriages didn’t last because of his cantankerousness. The fame he avidly sought in his early years — “like any other American kid, I wanted more of everything,” he notes — eventually struck him as inane and repellent. An all-star roster of interviewees, including the luminaries Mel Tormé and Buddy Rich, contributes to an unfailingly entertaining saga. The movie on its first release did so well — it won an Oscar — that it prompted the ever-unsatisfied Shaw to sue for a bigger share of the picture’s profits.
Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. In theaters.