A celebration of music, creativity and nightlife, Oliver Murray’s documentary Ronnie’s is a surprisingly pertinent film that captures the importance of the arts and illustrates late 20th-century London in an alluringly bohemian light.
Charting the life of Ronnie Scott, jazz saxophonist and co-founder of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, the film begins in a wistful, nostalgic mood. It starts with Scott’s modest early life in the East End of London, before his saxophone playing takes him to the city’s West End and then on a number of trips to New York City during the 1950s and 1960s. There, the jazz clubs of 52nd Street and the bebop sound of the era—played by musicians like Charlie Parker—influence him greatly.
Back in London Ronnie founded Ronnie Scott’s, along with fellow saxophonist and close friend Pete King, who brought business acumen and economic guidance to Ronnie’s somewhat grandiose artistic vision. The Soho jazz club developed from being a home for local artists into a legendary, essential and world-famous jazz venue.
The club becomes the film’s focal point, dominating the lives of Ronnie and Pete. We watch previous interviews with the two and hear from a plethora of performers and close friends about this iconic venue, how they developed it and how it affected jazz.
Graced by an almost endless list of iconic musicians including Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins, the club initially helped bring American-style ‘modern’ jazz to the United Kingdom. The club’s heyday of the 1960s through to the 80s is captured wonderfully; excellent archive footage is used adeptly, with extended clips of performances from the aforementioned musicians making you to feel as if you’re there, allowing you to sink into the club and revel in watching such revolutionary music.
The collection of footage is outstanding and the club during this era looks like the greatest place to be. With eminent musicians on stage seemingly every night, the club is a bastion of the city’s music scene, and a definitive jazz venue, respected by anyone worth their salt. Interviews with the greats of past and present reassure, if there was ever doubt, that this documentary is not just an overblown PR job. Ronnie Scott’s was vital.
The bohemian atmosphere of London, and Soho in particular, is defined by the club. Appearing in a series of archive interviews, Ronnie’s affection for his patrons is overt – they’re just as important as the musicians for creating his desired atmosphere. The club attracted a diverse crowd: artistic folk, those just after a night out and even some London gangsters, towards whom Ronnie had a rather liberal approach. These gangsters apparently never caused trouble, they were just contributors to the bar’s collection of vagabonds and rogues. It’s a point which he romanticises, viewing the mismatched audience as exactly right for a jazz club.
However, the film and the history of the club is not all rosy. An impressive middle section which looks at its financial difficulties is where the documentary is at its best. The relationship between art and commerce—a relevant topic in these tough times—is examined excellently.
The difficulties of making live music profitable and earning a living from an independent venue is nothing new, and the film illustrates how monetary struggles can often get in the way of creativity and restrict an artistic product. Ronnie and Pete ran their club for the love of jazz. Especially when Ronnie was concerned, money came second. They may not have helped themselves though. Tales of the two men giving away meals and drinks to people are told with humour and affection – they clearly loved hosting and bringing jazz to a wide audience. Though this friendliness and generosity may have hurt their bottom line, Pete’s remark of: “if we had been better businessmen, we would never have started a jazz club in the first place” encapsulates that this venture was never about the money.
From these financial difficulties, Ronnie’s is able to look more deeply at Ronnie Scott as a man and uncover his mental battles. Towards the film’s end, the man who lends his name to the club is not always the happy-go-lucky, creative and quick-witted figure who dominates the first two acts. When compère at the club, or playing the saxophone, Ronnie is a man who appears to be at peace with the world, but this is not a constant. Jazz music and the club itself are presented as things which alleviate his depression, which is handled sensitively. A focus on the ability of the arts to provide purpose and meaning, but also the difficult battle for perfection among artists, allows Murray to elevate his film above what you might have expected from a documentary about a London club.
Oliver Murray has succeeded in directing a film which is an excellent and timely riposte to the difficult time that the arts find themselves. An ode to creativity, it’s a film which applauds devotion to one’s passions and captures the legacy left by Ronnie and Pete’s dedication to music.
In an era when independent venues, artists, creatives and nightlife are under serious threat, Ronnie’s encapsulates why they are so important. Whether it means to be or not, this film is about more than just two men and their love for jazz. It goes some way to explaining what the arts mean to us, and why we have to protect them.
The film’s note perfect ending leaves you in a sentimental mood, wanting to do nothing else but head out to take refuge in a bar and lose an evening to great music and hideously overpriced drinks.
Ronnie’s arrives at Everyman Cinemas on 23 October.
Words by Dan Haygarth
Support The Indiependent
We’re trying to raise £200 a month to help cover our operational costs. This includes our ‘Writer of the Month’ awards, where we recognise the amazing work produced by our contributor team. If you’ve enjoyed reading our site, we’d really appreciate it if you could donate to The Indiependent. Whether you can give £1 or £10, you’d be making a huge difference to our small team.