‘The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith’: DOC NYC Review

The groundbreaking photojournalist who turned his apartment into his greatest subject.

An exceptionally vivid picture of bohemian life during one of New York City’s most exciting eras, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith exists thanks to its namesake’s perhaps pathological need to document his scene: The Kansas native left behind thousands of hours of audiotape and tens of thousands of pictures made between 1957 and 1965 at the ramshackle Flower District building he called home. A longtime documentary editor and journalist who produced a ten-part radio series drawing on this material, Sara Fishko makes a transporting first outing as director here, one sure to appeal on big screens and small to viewers who romanticize midcentury Manhattan.

Smith already had a celebrated photojournalism career at Life, where he perfected the photo-essay and made prints his peers envied (watch him sculpt light with his hands in the darkroom here!), when his obsessive tendencies caused him to lose his beautiful suburban home and flee his family. He holed up in a building not zoned for residences, where he and other artists and musicians could do their thing at all hours with no neighbors to complain. He came to see his window onto Sixth Avenue as a proscenium arch whose constant drama he needed to document, but he photographed the action inside the building as well. Not only did he take pictures of everything that happened around him, he kept a reel-to-reel machine going most of the time too — wired to microphones all over his rooms, the building’s stairwell, and even the studio above him.

The Bottom Line

A must-see for those who dream of living in bohemian 1950s Manhattan.

Fishko interviews veterans of the scene ranging from Steve Swallow and Carla Bley to avant-garde composer Steve Reich; along with less famous musicians (and photographers and writers), they fill in the narrative gaps left by the snapshots, scraps of chatter and copious overheard jam sessions “Gene” himself left behind.

Jazz fans enticed by stories of this loft’s up-all-night jam sessions may have noted that the aforementioned players are all white. Indeed, given the setting, it’s nearly shocking how few black faces one sees in the scores of photos early in the doc, and among its interviewees. (Race is not discussed in the film.) Those who’ve read about the place know Smith recorded Sonny Rollins, Alice Coltrane, and Don Cherry among others, but we hear mostly from less influential white men like Zoot Sims and drummer Ronnie Free, Smith’s occasional roommate and drug buddy.

There’s an exception, though, and it’s a doozy: Smith’s upstairs neighbor, composer Hall Overton, lucked into a gig working with Thelonious Monk on his landmark 1959 Town Hall show. For three weeks, Smith took pictures and recorded the two as they came up with ways to translate the pianist’s strange voicings to arrangements for a ten-piece band.

This long sequence alone makes the doc a must-see for jazz fans. But Fishko’s film is more expansive than an ordinary music doc, and takes long narrative detours into topics like Smith’s tenure as a war photographer, his family life and his increasing emotional neediness later in life. (He was only 59 when he died.) Her take on Smith’s documentation of the world around him both conjures that world and shifts the focus back to the picture-taker, and it leaves one wanting more. There’s no shortage of material available for a sequel.

Production companies: WNYC, Lumiere Productions

Director: Sara Fishko

Producers: Sara Fishko, Calvin Skaggs, Sam Stephenson

Director of photography: Tom Hurwitz

Editor: Jonathan J. Johnson

No rating, 88 minutes