Director Oliver Murray on ‘RONNIE’S’

Ronnie Scott was a legendary saxophonist and the man behind the renowned London Jazz club that commemorates his name. In his latest documentary film, RONNIE’S, writer-director Oliver Murray chronicles the life story of Ronnie, his lifelong partnership with fellow saxophonist Pete King with whom he co-founded the club, and the significance of the venue that became a place of pilgrimage to the world’s greatest jazz icons.

FRONTRUNNER speaks with Murray about RONNIE’S, London versus New York, time traveling through archives, and telling stories of young people with a dream.

Portrait of Ronnie Scott, circa 1960 by Freddy Warren
Photo credit: Dave Branson

As a creator with a background in music videos and music documentaries, what drew you to this project?

I think the authenticity of the music that came out of somewhere like Ronnie’s. Making music videos and commercials the way I did through my twenties was a fantastically creative and exciting way to find my own voice, but where authentic voices can be really heard [are] places like Ronnie Scott’s, or The Village Vanguard in New York. I was always drawn, like a moth to a flame, to people like Sonny Rollins or Chet Baker. These kind of mythical, tortured souls that would go to these clubs and play music. They were really giving something of themselves to you, and when I was given the opportunity to make RONNIE’S, I felt – for the first time – I was tapping into that kind of impulse. I think that as a filmmaker and the lead creative, you have some fantastic technicians around you, but it’s up to you to decide [if] you’ve got something to say. For me, this was the most vocal I have ever been; by wanting to celebrate an institution and fly the flag for these kinds of places that were so important to me growing up. We need to look after our venues and our nights out, and I think [that is] more important than ever as we come out of this pandemic. In New York, when I was there, CBGB was the place to go. It’s no longer there, and I couldn’t have imagined it would ever go while I was living there. I can’t really imagine Ronnie’s ever not being in central London, but it’s important that we look after these places because there is no guarantee that they will stay forever.

You studied at Pratt. Do you feel that your time in New York affected the way you created or structured the film?

Ronnie Scott’s ambition was quite simple: he wanted to create a little piece of 52nd Street (New York) in London. [Ronnie] and his contemporaries would do anything to get there. It’s funny, that’s how I felt when I was studying. I just wanted to get to New York. I was there in 2008, so this was before “Williamsburg was Williamsburg” kind of thing. It’s a special place to me, and I love the magnetism of it. I really feel the draw of the place. Pratt was an interesting thing for me. We don’t have a film school culture in Europe, in the same way. There are film schools, but it’s something that you come to very late in education, if at all, whereas it’s so much more of an industry in the United States. There’s more money in the education system over there, and you can get your hands on the equipment, which is a huge thing. I got to know what filmmaking was all about, and then I went back to Europe to decide what I wanted to do with those skills.

The movie includes interviews with Ronnie Scott’s collaborators, friends and family members. Could you talk about your decision to include audio of the interviews as a voiceover, and not include footage of the interviews, themselves?

It’s become one of the default ways I want to tell stories and make films. I think it grew out of the fact that people don’t necessarily like cameras in their faces, and this is especially true when you are talking about people that are in their eighties or nineties. When I interviewed Sonny Rollins, he was in his nineties, so I was never going to his house with seven people to light it, set it up and film. He doesn’t want to do that, I wouldn’t want to do that when I’m 90, no thanks. I’ll do radio interviews. We had such amazing access to the archive, and I like using voices to contextualise and interrogate what we’re seeing. That’s what I did with my first film, which was Bill Wyman and the Rolling Stones (The Quiet One, 2019). I thought that was pretty successful and took that through to RONNIE’S. It’s become my favourite way to go. People want to go back in time, almost. Archive is like a time machine: you can go back in time and immerse people in what London or New York or wherever was like, in that time. It wouldn’t have made sense to me to suddenly see, for example, Quincy Jones at age 80 because it has nothing to do with what it was like when he was a kid. It’s about young people with dreams. It’s about the beginning of the story, not the end.

I certainly felt immersed, as if I was going through a time machine. How did you find all of the incredible archival footage and what was it like to navigate it?

I’m very lucky that over the last few years, I’ve had a great team; specialists in finding film archives and music supervisors, [since] there are lots of rights issues, especially when you’re talking about an era where the music industry wasn’t as robust as it is now. No one really ever imagined that Chet Baker would go into Ronnie Scott’s, play a tune, and we would need to catalog it, because at the time, you don’t know you’re making history. The best history isn’t history until a long time later. It was not too difficult to find [the footage]. I’m very blessed that we made this film in London, home of the BBC. The BBC is the oldest and largest film and television archive in the world, which is brilliant. On the downside, it’s also the oldest and largest archive in the world, so no one knows where anything is. You need to have stamina and be able to articulate your vision. I was listening to Quentin Tarantino who did a DGA (Directors Guild of America) talk fairly recently. He said that when he started, he was nervous because he didn’t know all the names for everything. He didn’t know what he wanted. I think it was Terry Gilliam who said, “You don’t need to know the names, you just need to be able to explain what you want. You just need to be able to articulate your vision.” Tarantino said, “Well I can do that.” It’s sort of the same with archives: you just need to ask questions and keep pushing. We did detective work. We found these things and slowly but surely made the movie that way, layer by layer.

Was footage from RONNIE’S filmed for a special occasion? You mentioned the Village Vanguard before, a place that nowadays does not allow any kind of camera use or recording.

American musicians loved coming to Europe because they were treated very well, but they loved coming to Ronnie’s, especially, because Ronnie’s gave them a month-long residency. These musicians knew that they could hang out in London and play every night to a crowd that couldn’t believe that their idols were there. These musicians knew that after 20 nights in a row, they would be on top of their game and they could (and should) record it. Touring musicians and bands often have to come off the road and go into a studio to record. But if you think about Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, the clash was always between live (where they got the best of themselves) and going into the studio all the time to capture it. There are lots of great recordings at Ronnie’s because musicians knew that there were these special conditions, where they would be able to have 20 nights of a proper residency and then at the end of it, cameras would come in and capture all that spontaneity, but in familiar territory. It was amazing that we were able to benefit from that. On top of that, there were unofficial recordings, like the one of Jimmy Hendrix, that would now be called a “bootleg”. That’s the kind of thing that is a filmmaker’s dream: someone turns up, tells you they have Jimmy Hendrix’s last-ever gig recorded, and there’s no other way to put it [out], legally. But, now that it’s so famous and so revered, it’s a piece of history. We were very lucky to be able to include it.

What was the most challenging part about making this film?

I wanted to make sure it was Ronnie’s story, but Ronnie wasn’t around. Maintaining his perspective by hearing his voice and seeing him in the archive was very challenging, because if he didn’t say it while he was alive, he’s certainly not going to say it later. Hopefully, people who watch it really feel like it’s his film, that it is not diverging too much from a look at his personality. I find it quite challenging when people are so tolerant with you and so generous with their time, their stories, and their emotions. It was quite a heavy film to make at times, and that is the burden you have to bear while you’re making it. When we go into his depression we go there with these people. You’re sitting with them, going to their homes and leading them into talking about these traumatic times. For some people, especially for his daughter, you get up that morning knowing that you are going to take them into some difficult territory. But that’s a part of the job, the journalistic element of it. It makes for a better film, and I’m happy in the knowledge that she really likes the film and knows it was key to do that. You’ve got to be two feet in with the difficult moments, as well as enjoy celebrating all the triumphs.

FRONTRUNNER interviewed Ivan Jackson of the duo Brasstracks, who studied at the Manhattan School of Music, and received a jazz education before transitioning into more popular music. He was talking about the question of what jazz is, and the clash of breaking from the “old school”. Nowadays, people who would go to watch this kind of music in a live venue are people who play music themselves, or people who come to New York for the sake of seeing what New York is like. They watch a Broadway musical, they would go to MoMA, the High Line and the Blue Note, because it’s something you do as a tourist.

I think London is a little bit behind New York in the gentrification stakes. London benefits from having the ability to spread out, whereas because of the boroughs of New York, lots of people make the mistake of thinking that New York means Manhattan, especially tourists. There isn’t enough space, but there’s a lot of money and a lot of people coming with money looking for a good time. If you are a drummer, or a dancer in a show, or a projectionist at a cinema, or even a journalist, you are priced out. People are coming to New York in search of excitement, but the problem is that the people laying all these [events] out are clinging by a finger to live there, and that’s been the case for a while. It’s also happening in London with property prices booming, and I wanted to make something about Ronnie’s because I could see it changing. I hate to say it – I almost said dying and it’s not dying, but it’s unrecognisable from what we see in the film. The world has turned, and if we want to look after these kinds of places and make sure they don’t become museums (as the great Charles Peterson says), it’s not up to the venues, but it’s up to the public to look after them. Anyone in almost any town in the world has a little special hangout of some sorts, even if it’s a coffee shop in their old neighbourhood, a little theatre, or a cinema. These venues, like Ronnie’s in London, only exist if we fill them. So we’ve got to get out and fill them. It’s pointless enjoying that the place [if it] exists, but never going there. Now, especially after the pandemic when we’re allowed to leave our houses, it’s important that we do. I made RONNIE’S two years ago, and suddenly the world stopped. So, it still feels very fresh to me.

I hope if RONNIE’S connects with people. It connects because even if you live in Tokyo and have never been to Europe or the US, you vote with your feet by going to your favourite bar, or restaurant, or cinema, and support people like Ronnie Scott and Pete King. They had a dream and they made it happen. It’s up to us now to keep these dreams alive. They risk a lot by putting on these events, so we need to make sure that we go and see, hear, and watch all these different things that are available to us. That’s me getting on my soap box a little bit.

Ronnie Scott Photo Sheet by Bruce Fleming
Photo credit: Chris King

As the founder of your own production company, Orofena Films, what makes you choose a specific story to invest in? Is there a specific quality that would make you choose one project over another?

I am, in so many ways, a terrible managing director of a company, because everything I choose is 98% heart and 2% head. I wanted to get into the industry to tell interesting, nuanced and complex stories with as much heart and meaning as possible. I work largely in nonfiction these days, and because of streamings and all the different ways you can get your stories told, we’re in this golden age of storytelling. There’s a lot of investment in documentaries. Story is king. People want them, and it wasn’t always the way. When I got into it, people used to say that you couldn’t get a documentary arrested. It was a sub-genre, whereas now, especially because of streamers like Netflix, Apple TV, Mubi or HULU, some of the best documentaries, and documentary series [are being made]. I just finished my first series about the Montreux Jazz Festival. Quincy Jones was the executive producer, and that wouldn’t have happened five years ago. It happens now because people like Quincy want to be where the action is, and the action is with documentaries, and ideally series for the streamers. It’s a slow growth for me. I’m lucky that I have a very small staff, so I can be quite selfish with the stories I want to tell. I’m interested in growth, but I’m only interested in growth into fertile territory where there are more opportunities to tell good stories. I think I’d be a terrible managing director if we went into the more commercial lane because I’m very instinctive. I can’t believe I am where I am because I’m professionally nosy. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll have to expand and move into other things, but at the moment I couldn’t be happier doing what I’m doing.

Are there any contemporary creators who inspire your work? You mentioned Tarantino and Spielberg, but are there any others? Even musicians?

I really admire the likes of Werner Herzog. There’s always something about his stuff that doesn’t fit in a trend. It’s a “what is this madman is going to produce next?” kind of thing. In the UK, we’ve had some amazing producers like Asif Kapadia, who comes around again and again with [films like] Senna and Amy. The guys of the production company On The Corner changed the game, totally. For the past few years, we’ve been standing on their shoulders, because they opened the door for these very cinematic [documentaries]. Documentaries are back in cinemas, and they weren’t before that. I think those guys are incredibly influential. Errol Morris is another fantastic one, pushing and pushing and pushing new ideas. It’s funny, if you’d asked me yesterday, I would probably have said someone totally different, and if you’ll ask me tomorrow, there’ll be someone else. Today I’m having a Werner Herzog day, cause he’s the boss and he is great.

Herzog helped me understand documentaries as an equivalent film genre to the others. It’s auteur cinema in many ways, which is something I understood much later than I probably should have, but I think it’s an important lesson to learn.

But you wouldn’t have seen many filmmakers get opportunities to be an auteur. I only get the opportunities to make something like RONNIE’S with these big, long music sequences because people respect the medium now in a way they didn’t in 2010. It’s a real opportunity. There is nowhere to hide: you can’t throw in fantastic actors or too much dressing. Documentaries are about stories, and that’s that.

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