One of London's great institutions is put under the spotlight in this fine documentary.


Two facts about Ronnie Scott's club in Frith Street, London, demonstrate just how successful it has been: first, the club has acquired and maintained a truly international reputation and, secondly, even people with little or no interest in jazz are likely to have heard of it. For his second feature film following on from one about Bill Wyman, Oliver Murray brings us Ronnie's which is both a history of the club and a documentary biopic about Ronnie Scott himself. He lived from 1927 to 1996, came from London's East End and found fame as a tenor saxophonist before achieving his greatest success in founding Ronnie's along with his close friend Pete King.


Given the subject matter, Ronnie's is inevitably a must-see for jazz aficionados, but the truth is that Murray's intelligent film has much to offer to any audience except those with no ear for music at all. Murray's model is Asif Kapadia in that he mainly eschews talking heads: instead he prefers to set comments about Ronnie and the club against pre-existing images skilfully edited. Consequently, contributions from the likes of Michael Parkinson, Quincy Jones and Georgie Fame are heard, but we only see them in old footage. The rich archive also brings us much involving Ronnie Scott himself usually on film but extending to the sound of him replying to questions from Roy Plomley on what must be Desert Island Discs.


In presenting itself as a biopic, the film concentrates first on Ronnie Scott's career before discussing in its second half the darker side of his life (the manic depression that led to suicide attempts, his uncontrolled gambling). Two partners, Mary Scott and Fran├žoise Venet, also feature, but his relationships with women are largely bypassed although it is said that he had no social life as such. In the last few minutes of his film Murray fails to realise that it could be tightened to advantage, but the last shot of all is an ideal one and everywhere else the assemblage of the material is astute. It's apt that the credits should refer to the performances in listing the many great names appearing here in old but often rarely seen and imaginatively shot footage (they range from Ella to Dizzy Gillespie and from Buddy Rich to Sarah Vaughan). In each case the year is stated and the placing can be adroit too (as witness Nina Simone being heard after the information given about the extent of Ronnie's depressions and Ben Webster's contribution adding to the sad mood as Ronnie's last days are recalled). We hear too from those who played their part including the singer Barbara Jay, the music journalist John Fordham, the lawyer Wally Houser and the managing director Simon Cooke. Also, with Pete King having died in 2009, we hear from his wife and son.


Before it closes the film does bring the story up to date by recording the club's continuing success under new ownership that respects its history. The balance between the life and the music is always well judged and there are telling details about life in Soho, not least the friendly concern for the club on the part of local gangsters - most notably of all the godfather figure Albert Dimes. Ronnie Scott and his club deserved a film and, while something holds me back from proclaiming Ronnie's a masterpiece, I do believe that Murray has done them proud.




Featuring  Ronnie Scott, Pete King, Mary Scott, Fran├žoise Venet, John Fordham, Sally Greene, Wally Hauser, Simon Cooke, Barbara Jay, Stella King, Chris King, Michael Parkinson, Mel Brooks, George Melly, Chris Blackwell, Val Wilmer, Gilles Peterson, Lenny Breslaw, Quincy Jones, Kyle Eastwood, Cleo Laine, John  Dankworth, Sarah Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Van Morrison, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins, Georgie Fame.


Dir Oliver Murray, Pro Eric Woollard-White, Screenplay Oliver Murray, Ph Benjamin Thomas, Ed Paul Trewartha, Music Alex Hoffes.


Goldfinch/Orofena Films/Thirty Seven Productions-Bird Box.
106 mins. UK. 2020. Rel: 23 October 2020. Cert. 12A.