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Harlem rent parties and Fats Waller

According to Wikipedia, a rent party is:

a social occasion where tenants hire a musician or band to play and pass the hat to raise money to pay their rent. The rent party played a major role in the development of jazz and blues music.

Further reading suggests that rent parties started in Harlem in the 1910s as a way to offset rising rents.

Harlemites soon discovered that meeting these doubled, and sometimes tripled, rents was not so easy. They began to think of someway to meet their ever increasing deficits. Someone evidently got the idea of having a few friends in as paying party guests a few days before the landlord’s scheduled monthly visit. It was a happy; timely thought. The guests had a good time and entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of the party. Besides, it cost each individual very little, probably much less than he would have spent in some public amusement place. Besides, it was a cheap way to help a friend in need. It was such a good, easy way out of one’s difficulties that others decided to make use of it. Thus was the Harlem rent-party born….

Jazz pianist Fats Waller was associated with these parties and lived a short but colorful life.

The ebullient young man with the dazzling jazz style was a big hit at the Sherman Hotel. His nightly audience included men with wide lapels and bulging pockets. One evening Fats felt a revolver poked into his paunchy stomach. He found himself bullied into a black limousine, heard the driver ordered to East Cicero. Sweat pouring down his body, Fats foresaw a premature end to his career, but on arrival at a fancy saloon, he was merely pushed toward a piano and told to play. He played. Loudest in applause was a beefy man with an unmistakable scar: Al Capone was having a birthday, and he, Fats, was a present from “the boys”.

The party lasted three days. Fats exhausted himself and his repertoire, but with every request bills were stuffed into his pockets. He and Capone consumed vast quantities of food and drink. By the time the black limousine headed back to the Sherman, Fats had acquired severeal thousand dollars in cash and a decided taste for vintage champagne.

I was inspired to read about rent parties and Waller by this interview with Michel Gondry, director of Be Kind Rewind. Gondry says about his film:

It’s important in the story that there’s a parallel between what’s happening in the film and what happened in the past with rent parties, which were very real. Fats Waller became the great musician he was through those parties. When someone could not afford the rent for one month, they’d make a party. You’d bring a dollar, and there would be a piano contest all night long. People making their own entertainment, that’s exactly what it is.

Here’s Waller performing one of his most well-known pieces, Ain’t Misbehavin’.

Interview with Michel Gondry on his new

Interview with Michel Gondry on his new movie, Be Kind Rewind.

I hate cynicism. I wipe it from me. I don’t like cynical people. I don’t like cynical movies. Cynicism is very easy. You don’t have to justify it. You don’t have to fight for it.

Gondry also did a hilarious remake of the film’s original trailer.

Update: Maybe Gondry got the premise for the movie from an old Nickelodeon show called Amanda, Please! Or not.

The NY Times gets all nostalgic about

The NY Times gets all nostalgic about VHS and the upcoming releases of Be Kind Rewind and Son of Rambow.

The generation that came of age in the ’80s, as the VCR was becoming a staple, is especially prone to VHS nostalgia, a manifestation of the broader retro culture that has accounted for untold hours of programming on VH1.

In December, Adam Lisagor wrote a similar piece on VHS nostalgia and the movies for

But for a generation of filmmakers who cut their filmmaker teeth by shooting with the family camcorder and editing with two VCRs, there is a logical fixation with the object of the plastic and magnetic 1/2” VHS videocassette and the visual artifacts of its recorded image.

VHS gets love from two upcoming movies

Most avid readers will speak to an emotional attachment to books through associations of the senses - the roughness of the page, the smell of ink and glue - when describing a love of reading. Filmmakers and connoisseurs of film will cite an obsession with the physical properties of the celluloid through which movies are projected.

But for a generation of filmmakers who cut their filmmaker teeth by shooting with the family camcorder and editing with two VCRs, there is a logical fixation with the object of the plastic and magnetic 1/2” VHS videocassette and the visual artifacts of its recorded image.

Two movies will be released in the next months which hold the VHS aesthetic dear. One is Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind in which two video store clerks decide to deal with a store full of accidentally erased tapes by remaking the classic movies in their own, VHS homebrew fashion.

The other paean to VHS is Son of Rambow, Garth Jennings’ film which was the darling of Sundance this year. The title is that of the homebrewed movie that two little boys make after discovering and being mindblown by a bootleg copy of Rambo: First Blood on VHS.

Trailer for Be Kind Rewind.

No trailer yet for Son of Rambow, but a review from The New York Times.

This begs the question: with Super-8 and VHS all but a distant memory, with MiniDV on the way to extinction, what formats will the future filmmakers obsess over and what artifacts will they attempt to reproduce for nostalgia as they grow up and the formats of their youth are phased out?

I missed the trailer for Be Kind

I missed the trailer for Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry’s upcoming film starring Mos Def and Jack Black, when it came out back in August…perhaps you did too? The gist of the film: two video store clerks find all the tapes in the store are blank and set out to refilm all of the movies themselves.