DOC NYC 2020 Review: Running a Jazz Haven Becomes Its Own Art in Oliver Murray’s “Ronnie’s”

You’re welcomed into “Ronnie’s,” both the film and the famous jazz spot in SoHo, in the morning as deliveries are being accepted and glasses are being polished by the staff, the kind of nuts and bolts work that in spite of how special a place the music luminaries that director Oliver Murray interviews make it sound, you’re well aware that there is no small amount of effort made to make what happens inside feel as if it’s accomplished through magic. Still a bit of the mystery remains intact when Murray keeps his interviewees off-screen throughout his history of the club and its founder Ronnie Scott, an all-too-rare musician in charge of his own juke joint.

Not only does it seem appropriate that “Ronnie’s” appeals as strongly to the ears as the eyes when remembrances from those closest to Scott are heard over rare footage from the club including performances from the likes of Nina Simone and a duet between Van Morrison and Chet Baker, but Murray’s divvying up the senses between what you see and what was going on behind the scenes ends up being a fitting treatment when there was so much going on behind the curtains for better or worse. Scott, who was considered to be the best tenor saxophone player in England had become enamored with the idea of the unfussy, intimate clubs that he, Pete King and singer Barbara Jay played in America as opposed to more formal full-fledged concerts he was accustomed to in Europe.

As Jay recalls, there was plenty of time for Scott to consider the possibilities on the boat ride back from the Atlantic and King didn’t just play a mean sax, but proved to be a savvy business partner to start up such a venture with, working out the logistics of union contracts to facilitate a foreign exchange of artists that benefitted far more audiences than the lucky few who could file into Ronnie’s every night. (As Scott is heard joking, getting Sonny Rollins for the Beatles was “the deal of the century.”) When Scott could create the environment that he’d want for himself to perform in, Murray invites one into “Ronnie’s” with the same ease, letting those on hand offer recollections at a relaxed pace and ultimately work out thoughts about a complicated man who privately suffered from depression while making sure everyone who came to the club had a good time.

What becomes remarkable about “Ronnie’s” is that it celebrates what is typically unremarked upon, the relatively quiet dedication of someone who created a welcoming space for a community to flourish, both in Scott’s corner of England and for musicians to feel free to play to their heart’s content. It turns out when you create a refuge from the world with as much care as Scott, the world comes to you as visits from Quincy Jones and Mel Brooks attest and while the host prized intimacy, the accessibility afforded by committing the club’s history to film becomes its own tribute to someone who opened so many other doors besides the ones to the club that bore his name.

“Ronnie’s” does not yet have U.S. distribution.