Bernhard Fasenfest reviews Jeff Kaufman’s documentary, which screens Tuesday October 2nd at 3:30 pm in the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center as part of NYFF’s “On the Arts” sidebar.


There is no doubt that Chick Webb was one of the most talented and electrifying drummers in the storied history of Jazz music, and clocking in at just over four feet tall, he was certainly the shortest. Despite his diminutive stature, Webb was a major force in swing during the 20s and 30s, influencing the likes of Gene Krupa, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey, and Buddy Rich and discovering the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald. Six years in the making, The Savoy King attempts to chronicle the brief, yet tumultuous life of this “little giant” of Jazz music. Utilizing a wealth of archival footage, new interviews, and primary sources, director Jeff Kaufman masterfully assembles a portrait of the roaring atmosphere of Harlem in the 20s, the bustling backdrop to Webb’s meteoric rise from newspaper hustling youngster to famed bandleader. From start to finish, The Savoy King completely immerses you into Webb’s world, capturing the quick-fire energy that captivated thousands in the legendary halls of the Savoy Ballroom.

Kauffman delves into Webb’s life with a joyful sensibility and an eye for detail that can only come with a love for Webb’s music. Though Webb only lived to be 30 years old, The Savoy King is jam-packed with material as Webb’s frenetic lifestyle created an ample source of grin-inducing anecdotes and musical adventures. The Savoy King excels at shedding away the excess and focusing on moments that define Webb’s career with a revealing intimacy toward Webb and those around him. It brims with raucous vitality as witnesses recount the excitement of Webb’s awe-inspiring battles with Jazz legends Benny Goodman and Count Basie, and is remarkably tender in its portrayal of his mentorship of Ella Fitzgerald. Another strong point of the film is its ability to seamlessly integrate the culture of Harlem into the story, weaving in tales of the Lindy Hop and growing racial tensions that compliment Webb’s own narrative.

In this regard, The Savoy King is strikingly reminiscent of Ken Burns’ seminal TV mini-series Jazz. The editing techniques are quite similar and they both focus on uncovering history through first person narratives. Kaufmann differentiates himself from Burns however in his sparing use of narration, relying instead on fantastic voice over work by Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among many others, which brings life to quotes from Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Webb himself. These quotes form the glue that binds the film together, forming an unobtrusive, yet informative oral history of Webb’s life that beautifully accompanies the historical imagery. Unfortunately, The Savoy King is markedly alike to Burn’s work in other respects, as Jazz also documents Webb and the Savoy, although not in as great detail, and features some of the same interviewees. Because the narrow scope of The Savoy King is the only element that really sets it apart from Jazz, it ends up appealing only to small subsection of viewers. Anyone who is even nominally interested in swing Jazz or Chick Webb in particular will be swept away by this gem of a documentary, but those who are simply interested in Jazz music as a whole or in the history of this time period will be better served by the all-encompassing lens of the Jazz series.