Hot Jazz was my 1980 thesis film at New York University Grad Film & TV (now Tisch School of the Arts), a story about two people creating their own private versions of hell. The storytelling is visual, with very few words, the images played against the jazz of Django Reinhardt.
Some very good people worked on this film. Caroline Abady went on to have a very successful acting career working as Caroline Aaron, and is still at it, most recently appearing in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime. David Graf – the lover – starred in all the Police Academy movies before dying tragically early in 2001. Nick Dager played the taxi driver, and has built a career as a film journalist – one of the best around. He now runs his own online magazine, Digital Cinema Report.
Cinematographer Nick Holmes has a successful career as a film editor in Australia, while Josh Miller has been a successful producer in Alberta, Canada. John Thomas, who was gaffer, became known for his work on the Sex and the City TV series, as well as the movies – in addition to many other films. Alan Hostetter works as a cinematographer in New York, Frank Kern is a Foley editor for features and Jonathan Leif is the Editorial Director at Bric TV in Brooklyn. John Kozak became an indie feature director in Winnipeg (I shot several of his films), and later a film professor at the University of Winnipeg – working alongside Howard Curle, one of the best cinema studies professors I know. David Hytha, who built the kitchen set, made a career in tech around the world before ending up at the north end of Silicon Valley (Berkely). His wife Patrice Fusillo graciously loaned her apartment for that kitchen scene, along with her kimona, which Caroline wore during the fight. Unfortunately, the kimona didn’t survive that scene and I still feel guilty about it to this day.
The film was produced together with my ex, Sharron Sarthou, and it was based on The Billy Hume Story, an original story/screenplay written by my brother, Rod Moorhead and adapted with me for the movie. Rod has become a successful artist and sculptor in Oxford, Mississippi. I directed and edited the film.
I shot Hot Jazz in 1980, but it wasn’t completed until two years later with the help of an NEA grant from the Alabama Filmmaker’s Co-op. That was back in the day when the National Endowment for the Arts actually helped independent filmmakers and non-profit film cooperatives were still a thing. Ronald Reagan put an end to nearly all of it.
The film was shot on 16mm Eastman Kodak stock, using an Éclair ACL; NYU had one of the first ACL cameras, which had traveled with Nixon to China in 1972. It was quiet and light, an excellent hand-held camera. It was the inspiration for the Aaton (which bought Éclair in the 1980s). Sound was recorded on a Nagra IV, and editing was on Steenbeck 4-plate and a KEM 8-plate. As I remember it was mixed at MPL Labs in Memphis, Tennessee. I think the final timing and lab work was also at MPL. The exterior night scenes were done with Chemtone at TVC labs in New York, which allowed us to work with natural street lighting – Chemtone was also used for Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese.
This restoration is quite funky, in that I had to do it on the cheap and couldn’t afford to work with the original 16mm unfortunately (the original film is with my film collection at the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina. I had to work with a DVD made from a very old ¾ videotape dub of the film – hence some color shifts on the edges here and there. I upresed the film using Instant HD, an upres software discontinued in 2011 which only runs on Adobe After Effects 3.0. Fortunately, my 2010 Macbook Pro still runs it. Its slow and difficult to use but does a very good upres, adding a bit of a pastel effect to the image.
Hot Jazz never got proper distribution or even a festival life. I simply didn’t have the money when I completed it to get it shown. It was expensive to send out films to the festival circuit and after I got turned down by the first one, I stopped trying. My bad.
I looked at Hot Jazz recently to settle a bet between an old Oxford friend, Lowell Grisham, and his daughter Allison (her son was in on this as well). Allison was claiming that she had starred in a movie in New York – my movie Hot Jazz. Lowell didn’t remember it, and Allison’s son was skeptical of her claim. I screened it to make sure my memory was correct – that Allison really had starred in the film. This was during the time when Lowell was at General Seminary (Episcopal church) in New York during the same three years I was at NYU.
Allison indeed had a small but important role in the film and she was damned good. Best two-year-old actor I’ve ever directed. When I saw the film again, I found it to be much better than I remembered, so I decided to do the crude restoration here. Hope you enjoy the film.