JazzTown: Resonating Rhythms, Missed Beat

Repetition is a key component of jazz, with musical phrases circling around each other and
eventually, one hopes, creating a whole that is greater than its individual parts. As a filmmaking
technique, repetition becomes monotony, and so it goes with Ben Makinen’s well-intentioned but
dull documentary JazzTown. Clearly a labor of love – filming took place over more than a
decade – the doc never quite finds its footing; the passion its maker has for this music doesn’t
flow from the finished product.

Set in Denver and designed to be a tribute to that city’s music scene, JazzTown opens with a
montage of musicians and jazz-lovers answering the question, “What is jazz?” It’s no
coincidence that the most meaningful of these answers tend to be the most abstract as well.
Makinen’s camera skips from interviewee to interviewee, mostly veteran players and singers,
with a few youngsters (including a talented tween drummer) and some marquee names (Dianne
Reeves, Senator John Hickenlooper) sprinkled in as well.

There’s very little panache to this parade of talking heads, which would be forgivable if the film
were clearer about its intent. It opens with a “Director’s Note” title card saying that JazzTown is
a tribute to the director’s mentors, but this idea never manifests as a throughline. Does the film
want to explore what jazz is, or where it came from? Is it designed to celebrate or trace the
history of Denver’s jazz scene? Has it been designed simply as a platform for some great music?
In the final analysis, it’s not any of these things.

Scenes offer snippets of songs, with only a handful performed start to finish. As an editor (he’s
also credited as director, writer, cinematographer and composer), Makinen has little sense of
filmic flow or rhythm, which would be a problem for any documentary, but especially for one
about this particular topic.

Individual interviewees stand out as memorable figures – vocalist Teresa Carroll recalls having
to keep singing as a brawl broke out during a nightclub performance; the late sax player Freddy
Rodriguez, Jr., says he’s stayed healthy by not smoking, before mentioning he enjoys a little
cocaine every so often – but the restless structure of the JazzTown never lets anyone make too
much of an impression before zipping off to the next person.

The Mile High City acts as a backdrop, but JazzTown has virtually nothing to say about what
might have attracted or nurtured all this jazz talent in the first place. And with so many of the
film’s subjects lamenting the state of live jazz performance in an age where most bars and
nightclubs rely upon DJs or TV screens to provide entertainment, JazzTown doesn’t exactly
provide inducement for music aficionados to book their next vacation there.

One can’t accuse Makinen of not putting in the time here; over the course of the film’s lengthy
production history, he clearly did the legwork of speaking to dozens of subjects and recording
what must have been hundreds of hours of footage. (More than one of the film’s subjects passed
away between being interviewed and the movie’s completion.) But with its plodding pace and
lack of focus, the end result, while affectionate, lacks the polish a more experienced filmmaker

could deliver. It’s a movie that offers a spotlight to some very talented artists, but as a
documentary, it misses the beat.

Review by: Alonso Duralde

Action Reloaded


  • Alonso Duralde

    Duralde is the Chief US Film Critic for The Film Verdict and co-host of several podcasts, including "Linoleum Knife," "Maximum Film!," "Breakfast All Day" and "Deck the Hallmark." He has appeared on TCM and was a regular contributor to FilmStruck. He is the author of two books, Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas (Limelight Editions) and 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men (Advocate Books), and the co-author of I'll Be Home for Christmas Movies (Running Press). His book on the history of LGBTQ+ Hollywood will be published by TCM/Running Press in 2024.