“We didn’t know if it would work; we just pressed ahead,” says WBGO DJ and music director Gary Walker in “The WBGO Story: Bright Moments From Newark to the World,” a 55-minute documentary on the Newark-based public radio station that will be available online, Jan. 30, to kick off the Spring 2021 edition of the New Jersey Film Festival. (Because of the pandemic, all offerings will be online only; for information about this film and other to be shown, visit njfilmfest.com.)
Directed by Chris Daniel, the film offers an overview of the jazz station’s first 40 years, from its low-budget beginnings — musicians were reluctant to stop by for interviews, we are told, because the station had no heat or air conditioning — to its current status as a cornerstone of the jazz scene in New Jersey, New York and beyond. Archival photos supplied by Billy May help flesh out the discussion, and original music composed and played by Don Braden adds to the atmosphere.
The film is particularly good at recounting how the station was formed, and how it made it through various uphill battles in its early years. The general consensus was that a pubic radio station devoted to jazz would never work, but founder Robert Ottenhoff assembled a staff of true believers, and they all made it happen together — with the support of the local jazz community, and thousands of donors and volunteers who appreciated what they were doing.
The dominant figures in the documentary are Ottenhoff and WBGO’s longtime special events and community relations coordinator Dorthaan Kirk, who has been called Newark’s First Lady of Jazz. A large amount of the film features them talking, or people talking about them. And most of the other commentary — not all, but definitely most — comes from WBGO staff members.
Director Daniel doesn’t seem like an independent observer, investigating WBGO’s story and telling us what he has learned. He seems only interested in helping WBGO tell its own story, which is a very different thing. While accusations of racial discrimination at WBGO were widely covered in the media last year, and led to the naming of a new WBGO president, Daniel ignores this matter completely. It is also surprising that he doesn’t devote more of the film to behind-the-scenes segments or footage from WBGO events, or musicians talking about what WBGO means to them.
One hopes that someday, a more thorough WBGO documentary will be made. Until that happens, though, “The WBGO Story: Bright Moments From Newark to the World” does provide a basic introduction to the station and, one hopes, may help make people more aware of it.
Here is the trailer:
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