"If you look at Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club in the beginning, in the context of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson or Louis Armstrong, where in the hell does the stuff he's doing come from?" jazz critic Gary Giddins asks in a voice-over. "There's nothing like it. Louis Armstrong's scat is very musical and very intricate, but it's not the theatrical craziness Cab is willing to unleash on the stage."

John Landis, who directed Calloway late in the artist's life in the 1980 film "The Blues Brothers" with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, says simply, "Cab Calloway is hip-hop."

And with those words, and with the screen filled with the images of Calloway doing his stuff onstage almost a century ago, the film is off and running.

There are some traditional interview moments that are used to tell the Calloway story. In one, Murphy talks about the "odor" and the "aura" of her father from her earliest memories as a little girl.

"It was sort of like the odor you smell when you go backstage, and you smell the mixtures of perfume and cigarettes and makeup, and it all gave him a sort of an aura that I remember as being good," she says sniffing the air as if she might find the long-lost scent again.

There are also interview moments that brilliantly contextualize Calloway in terms of race and culture. Cecelia Calloway, another daughter, talks about the "brown paper bag test" that was used to gauge acceptable skin color for the women in the Cotton Club's chorus line. That was the world of race in which Calloway had to make his way.

And cultural critic Stanley Crouch is stunning in his analysis of how Calloway's hair and the wild ways in which he swung it to and fro onstage defined a new space in the 1930s and 1940s between black and white identity. Crouch's take on Calloway's hair alone is worth the time spent with this film.

But in the end, what makes this production soar are moments like the ones with Matthew Rushing, choreographer and principal dancer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Levin uses Rushing throughout the film to talk about Calloway's movements and connect them to both formal modern dance and the urban movements of today like hip-hop. At one point, viewers are treated to a performance in which Rushing mimics the movements of Calloway in archival footage until the poetry and modern dance of Calloway are impossible to miss.

At the documentary's end, Rushing starts to perform the Calloway movements alone in an empty studio — and is then joined by an animated version of Calloway that appears like a spirit from another world dancing side by side with the choreographer.

Levin says she wanted to "sort of copy Gene Kelly and Jerry Mouse, in 'Anchors Aweigh,' but without the budget."

She did better than that. For a few seconds there at the end of "Cab Calloway: Sketches," she makes you believe that Cab Calloway, who died in 1994, is dancing again across the stage.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

"Cab Calloway: Sketches" airs at 10 p.m. Monday on MPT, Channels 22 and 67, and WETA, Channel 26.



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