Review: Black Harvest Film Festival Features the History of Blue Note Records in It Must Schwing!

Some of the strongest films at any year’s Black Harvest Film Festival, the annual month-long film series at the Gene Siskel Film Center now in its 25th year, are the documentaries. And if part of the goal of the event is to reflect black culture from all angles, docs are a sure-fire way to make that happen.

It Must Be Schwing Image courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center

Although It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story takes a fairly straight-forward approach to its storytelling, German director Eric Friedler sketches out the rise of top-tier jazz label Blue Note Records with an enthusiast’s eye for detail. Founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff—two Jewish-German refugees who each escaped Nazism, though at different times—whose only real connection and similarity was their love of all things jazz. Their desire to see artists treated fairly and paid well is what led to the founding of Blue Note, and word quickly got around that these two men were the best hosts a musician could hope for. If you were any good at playing jazz in the last 80 years, you were likely on this label.

The film features reels of rare audio and film recordings, and it seems the label was fond of documenting its artists via a staff photographer, which also adds to the ambiance of the movie (and made for some excellent album covers). Executive produced by Wim Wenders, It Must Schwing! fills in some of its gaps with some fairly sophisticated animation, but it’s the interviews with those musicians who are still with us that perhaps give us the most personal elements from decades past. For context, I know very little about the music on display here, but director Friedler convinced me with adept storytelling and beautiful visuals that I should seek out some of these classic recordings, and that’s the job of any great music documentary.

The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Tuesday, Aug. 6 at 6:00pm, and Wednesday, Aug. 7 at 8pm.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.