• Reel Reviews

Jazz in ‘Ginger & Rosa’ a welcome surprise

written by: on March 19, 2013

In early 1960s London, with the Cuban Missile Crisis looming like a dark shadow over the radically changing times, best friends Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) must grow up quickly. Carefree girlhood soon gives way to the exquisite ache of adolescence, with latent sexual stirrings and secrets that neither can contain for long.

A modern day soundtrack to this story would likely include the fragile, tugging melodies of Birdy, Laura Marling and Fiona Apple post-Idler Wheel. Yet peppering scenes with late ’50s jazz greats like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk is not only a more inspired choice for Ginger & Rosa, but a more textured and complex rendering of their world as well. The two girls are maturing in an era of intense political unrest, and soon their own relationship will be pushed to the breaking point.

Most period pieces don’t utilize jazz nearly as much as they should. Thankfully, this film delights in it.

The jazz of Ginger & Rosa perfectly captures the dark fairy tale aesthetic that director Sally Potter (OrlandoThe Man Who Cried) spins like magic on to the screen. Intimate, nuanced and heady with desire, the records that the girls play while trading clothes and sharing cigarettes define them as dreamers: vibrant beings not to be tamed by their mothers or the niceties of sleepy England life. The post-war countryside is cold and grey, but brilliant flashes of light (like Ginger’s blazing red hair and Count Basie’s swinging jazz piano) add passion and poetry to a misogynistic environment intent on suppressing both.

Ginger’s father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) has the freedom to be a leftist professor, but her mother Nat (Christina Hendricks of Mad Men) shelved her career as a painter to keep house and bake mince-meat pies. Ginger is expected to become a good little homemaker as well, but alas: a) she reads T.S. Eliot and shares her father’s bohemian tendencies, b) her feelings for Rosa are too confusing and painful to ignore, c) Rosa is having an affair with Roland, and Ginger must keep their secret.

Elle Fanning

Elle Fanning as Ginger.

All of these dilemmas are punctuated by gorgeous visuals, like frozen grass breaking in Ginger’s hands as Kennedy announces nuclear war, and key musical moments from Davis, Monk, Basie, Charlie Parker and the Drave Brubeck Quartet. Music supervisor Amy Ashworth (Joy Division, Dirty Weekend, Town of Runners, Birdsong) keeps the score light on melodrama, allowing Ginger’s spirit and passion to triumph over her despair.

Fanning and Englert are brilliant in their roles, which makes the jazzy soundtrack to their relationship all the more poignant. Inseparable since birth, torn apart by encroaching womanhood and unsure of where (or to whom) they should turn after their devastating secrets have been laid bare, these once-winsome naifs have little hope to comfort them by the films end.

The final scenes show Ginger and Rosa as much darker version of their former selves, never to trust each other again or feel the bliss of sweet togetherness that childhood left behind. And yet, they remain bound by one common thread: the bluesy intoxication of their old jazz records, a collection of memories they can never forget.