Tribeca 2024 Review: They All Came Out to Montreux

How did a tiny Swiss lakeside town become the site of a legendary music festival? Why is it called the Montreux Jazz Festival when rock acts play there? Writer/director Oliver Murray dives headlong into the history of the still-thriving festival and the intertwined life of its creator, Claude Nobs, in this fascinating new documentary. 

Buy Nina Simone: The Montreux Years CD

Nobs was born and raised in Montreux, so was a natural for his early role in their civic office as they cast about for ideas to bolster tourism. A lifelong fan of jazz, he pitched the idea of a weekend jazz festival, and eventually gained backing from his favorite label, Atlantic Records, to provide some acts. His determination and absolute love of live music were contagious, leading to the establishment of the annual festival and Montreux’s associated increase in tourism.

As the years progressed to the late ‘60s, he recognized the importance of rock music and insisted on opening up the festival to a far more eclectic mix of artists, further increasing its popularity. Unfortunately, a massive fire wiped out their lakeside casino venue in 1971, threatening the fest’s ongoing existence until they rebuilt in 1975. Ever the visionary, Nobs also negotiated to add a new recording studio during the rebuild, whose first booked session was a small band called the Rolling Stones.

Murray presents the story of Nobs and Montreux in chronological order, continuing on with the festival’s further expansion under a partnership with Quincy Jones in the late ‘80s, a look inside their impeccably curated vault containing a treasure trove of their filmed performances through the years, and wrapping up with the death of Nobs over a decade ago. Nobs may be gone, but his legacy lives on, and his insistence on carefully preserving all of their performances since day one ensures that his festival will never be forgotten.

Murray reveals some amazing trivia about the festival, including the fact that one of Deep Purple’s biggest songs, “Smoke on the Water”, is about the casino fire, and the tidbit that Queen and David Bowie’s historic team-up, “Under Pressure”, was the direct result of Hobs suggesting they work together in his studio since they were both in town. There’s plenty of footage of Hobs, where his infectious love of live music is palpably clear, whether he’s dancing offstage or jamming on harmonica onstage, always with a smile.

Of course it wouldn’t be a proper music documentary without music, and Murray delivers in spades, stuffing a murderer’s row of the festival’s legendary performances into the 93-minute film. Early on we see Nina Simone in black and white casually playing Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” on piano in a seemingly deserted casino lounge in the daytime. There’s Ella Fitzgerald blowing the crowd away in 1969, Carole King’s first-ever performance outside of the U.S. in the ‘70s, Miles Davis in the ‘90s revisiting the work from his early partnership with Gil Evans for the first time in decades (at the pleading of Hobs), and Prince lamenting the recently deceased Hobs in 2013. In between, there are performance snippets from artists ranging from David Bowie, Carlos Santana, Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison, George Clinton, Roberta Flack, and Wyclef Jean.

The movie seems to be an edited version of Murray’s three-hour miniseries of the same name which aired on the BBC last summer. While most of us can only guess about what we missed in the extended version, Murray does a fantastic job of ensuring that movie viewers don’t feel shortchanged. The movie is jam-packed with information and archival performances, but it never feels rushed or scattered, retaining a clearly delineated chronological throughline that hand-walks us through the festival’s incredible history and performances. Highly recommended viewing for even the most casual of music listeners, and absolutely essential for true fans of rock and/or jazz music.

Steve Geise

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