Ram Bowen and Eddie Cook are two expatriate jazz musicians living in Paris where, unlike America at the time, Jazz musicians are celebrated and racism is a non-issue. When they meet and fall in love with two young American girls, Lillian and Connie, who are vacationing in France, Ram and Eddie must decide whether they should move back to America with them, or stay in Paris for the freedom it allows them. Ram, who wants to be a serious composer, finds Paris more exciting than America and is reluctant to give up his music for a relationship, and Eddie wants to stay for the city's more tolerant racial atmosphere.
Two years before they would make 'Hud,' Martin Ritt and Paul Newman were accompanied by Sidney Poitier in 'Paris Blues,' a 1961 film showcasing the exploits of two expatriate American jazz musicians, trying to make it big in the City of Lights. Joining them were Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward, as two young women vacationing in Europe, who manage to turn the musicians' lives upside down, and briefly cause them to rethink their priorities. It was a film marketed heavily on the idea of romance, and all the emotional profits that can spring from a newfound relationship. But despite its title, and despite its marketing strategy, 'Paris Blues' is very much a film about chasing the American Dream, and asking why its primary characters would find themselves leaving the United States behind in order to do so.
Newman plays the curiously named Ram Bowen, a workaholic whose ambition and passion for his art leave little time for serious relationships. As such, Ram finds himself spending the precious few hours he's not composing or performing (the film makes it very clear Ram sleeps only after going full bore for a few days straight) with Marie Séoul (Barbara Laage) the owner of the club that ostensibly employs Ram and his partner Eddie Cook (Poitier). While Ram is in Paris to pursue his dream of being a recognized composer, Eddie finds himself abroad for the music, as well as the country's more open-minded racial views, and the opportunities and comfort that tolerance provides him.
Ram and Eddie's comfortable Parisian routine is disrupted when Connie and Lillian (Carroll and Woodward, respectively) arrive on vacation and, after a bit of convincing by Ram, proceed to spend their two weeks traveling abroad in the company of fellow Americans who now call Paris home. What Connie and Lillian lack in terms of their willingness to engage in some cultural immersion, they make up for by evoking some strong feelings in Ram and Eddie for both the future, and for the country they left behind. Connie spends most of her time convincing Eddie that the intolerance he'd rather forget has eased considerably, that the racial climate in the U.S. is improving, and that he should return home to be a part of that transition.
Meanwhile, Lillian takes a different route with Ram, asking him to question what it is that he wants from life, and how realistic his expectations are. Despite the signs, Lillian isn't some philistine hoping to force Ram out of a delusional state of hoping to make it big as – of all things – a jazz musician; she just sees life as being in pursuit of more attainable goals. As a result of his dealings with Lillian, Ram takes his compositions to a producer, who tells him that while they are technically proficient, they lack the power and emotion of a musician whose art tells a story of a life that knows the pangs of compromise and loss. His suggestion: Ram take a few years away from music, live the life he never wanted, and come back with a story to tell.
Ritt steers the movie in such a way that it develops the semblance of a plot, but really the film just becomes a collection of loosely connected moments that establish a thematic framework set around the pursuit of happiness, and how that, for good or bad, sometimes means not merely venturing off the beaten path, but actively avoiding it all together. In doing this, the film draws a parallel between ambition and addiction, by having Ram and Eddie's deliriously talented guitarist René Bernard (André Luguet) also be saddled with a crippling drug addiction. It's not the most elegant way of suggesting Ram's focus on his art is like René's reliance on white powder, but the idea that music, or the drive to create from raw emotion, is itself like a drug has far more resonance as the movie carries on.
This notion of art and music as an indulgent stimulant that's worthy of someone's obsession (and even their dependence) is given credence in the film's liveliest moment: when famed trumpeter Wild Man Moore – played by famed trumpeter Louis Armstrong – crashes Ram and Eddie's club for a friendly, impromptu challenge/celebration of jazz and music itself. As if an appearance by Armstrong wasn't enough, the film continues its exploration into the love of music by also featuring a score by the famed Duke Ellington (for which he received an Academy Award nomination).
Ellington's score is another sign that 'Paris Blues' may hold all the standard trappings of a romantic feature – having two of the most attractive male stars of the time in leading roles will do that for a picture – but it isn't really interested in telling a conventional romance at all. What quickly becomes clear is that the true romance of the film is locked away in what Ram and Eddie want but may never attain – a point that goes for Connie and Lillian's own pursuit of a dream (American or otherwise). This is a film that features characters who are in love with the idea of love, a construct that's no less intangible than their seemingly impossible hopes and dreams.
In the end, 'Paris Blues' suggests the truest love isn't necessarily found in another person, but rather it is found in that which you simply cannot live without.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Paris Blues' comes from Kino Lorber as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. This is basically a bare bones edition of the film, as the only special feature contained on the disc is the trailer.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer delivers a nicely detailed black-and-white image that makes the various age-revealing elements a part of the picture's charm, rather than a distraction from it. Close-ups are generally going to reveal the majority of the fine detail, which isn't perfect, but is at least present. Facial features are on display, and there are some nice instances of texture being easily detectable as well. The most striking example of this is during the "Battle Royal" between Louie Armstrong and Ram, where detail of all kinds looks to be at its highest. Otherwise, the image exhibits the greatest amount of clarity during interior sequences, or the parts taking place inside the club.
To be honest, the term "interior" is a bit of a misnomer, as much of the film was clearly shot on a soundstage, with projected images comprising the background. Some of this clearly accounts for the lack of clarity in certain places, but it also gives the film a unique kind of character that's hard not to enjoy.
Otherwise, the image's contrast is the most important factor, and here it doesn't disappoint. Black levels produce strong, inky shadows that maintain the detail in the objects around them. White balance is also quite good, as the picture never looks blown out or too hot. The film's grayscale is very nice, with great variation between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks.
It's not a perfect image, but it does give 'Paris Blues' a very nice upgrade.
The film has been given a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix that handles the two primary elements – dialogue and music – very well. Actors are easily heard no matter if they are walking along a desolate street in Paris at night, or if it's during a rowdy jazz battle in a dank club. Dialogue always comes through sounding quite good and it is balanced nicely with the subtle sound effects and Duke Ellington's musical score.
Of course Ellington's contributions to the film cannot be ignored, and the lossless audio here does a very good job in making sure it serves as a highlight to the film. The score is delivered with plenty of dynamic range that is sometimes surprising given the film's age. Tone is consistent throughout, and it rarely sounds flat or echo-y. Moreover, the mix is free of scratches or hisses that might otherwise deter from the clarity of the sound. Mostly, this is a mix that knows what elements it wants to showcase, and it does an admirable job doing so.
Trailer (SD, 3 min.)
'Paris Blues' seems like an unconventional film before it even starts. And while it offers a great amount of character arcs being expressed through dialogue, it also delivers some interesting thematic work that helps assuage most complaints in regard to the film relying too heavily on telling what it's characters are going through. With a nice image and good sound, this film may be ready to be rediscovered for fans of Newman and Poitier, or those who just love jazz. This one is worth a look.