‘Ronnie’s’ on BBC4
Val Wilmer’s classic portrait of Ronnie Scott leaning against the entrance of his Frith Street club captures the man as most of us thought we knew him: the epitome of Soho cool. Ronnie’s, a new documentary written and directed by Oliver Murray, goes deeper to show us the man known to his intimates. Something that could easily have been banal and superficial becomes a sensitive and finely nuanced depiction of a life lived under pressures both external and internal.
The film is being shown on BBC4 this weekend and should be watched by everyone who ever set foot in the club, or even wished they had. It starts out conventionally enough, as if it is going be a straightforward celebration of the 60-year-old institution that has played host to Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan, Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Roland Kirk, Bill Evans and so many other famous names. Before long, however, it is describing the relationship between Ronnie and Pete King, his business partner, the man who kept the wheels turning when times got tough, as they often did.
They’re both gone now, but Murray brings them back to life through their own words and those of others, building a picture of two men united by stoicism, sardonic wit, and a love of music and (mostly) musicians. Ronnie’s complex character is fully explored, including his near-ruinous gambling habit and the depression that afflicted him — which, combined his inability to play the saxophone following extensive dental treatment, probably led to his death from what the coroner described as “an incautious dose of sedatives”.
Clips of many great musicians at the club keep things swinging along, but darker undertones gather in the second half and the final section is elegiac and extremely affecting. By acknowledging the darker truths, this superlative film makes us cherish the continued existence of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club even more.
* Ronnie’s is transmitted on BBC4 this Sunday, November 15, at 9pm. Here’s the trailer. Val Wilmer’s photograph is used by her kind permission.