By Bryon Cherry OnMilwaukee Contributor Published Oct 29, 2018 at 11:26 AM

The music and oversized personality of the documentary "It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story" glistens, keeping the audience's head bobbing and engaged.

The sheer immensity of the importance of Blue Note Records on the Jazz landscape cannot be overstated. This entire review could be filled by just listing the notable artists – John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock and so many more – that brought life to the label.

Blue Note Record’s leaders, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, were teens when they met at a Sam Wooding concert in Belin, Germany. They found in each other a mutual obsession for the African-American music coming over from America. They became fast friends who did whatever they could to stay with the music.

It so happened that as they were coming of age just as the rise of nationalism struck in their native Germany. Both Lion and Wolff came from Jewish families so Lion quickly saw the writing etched on the wall and decided to expatriate to America. Once in the "Nile of Jazz music," New York City, Lion sought out the music he loved even at the risk of personal strife and peril. Blue Note records was founded soon after in 1939 on a less than shoestring budget. Quickly after this, Wolff emigrated and joined his friend in the business.

The music laced through the film is so potent that it makes one wish that it was appropriate to bust out your cell phone and use the app Shazam in a theater to find out what each song is for future romantic dinners or long walks around the city. Meanwhile, the city at the crux of the documentary is New York City, and in the vintage stock footage and home movies, it almost breathes and speaks.

A lot of the story is told with griping animations, seemingly rendered from clay. The aesthetic of the film as a whole is achingly beautiful. It is as if the elegance of the Blue Note cover art has burst into life. It is amazing to hear the artist talk about Wolff always being with his camera, then seeing the shots he took that would become iconic as album covers take shape.

It did not take long for Lion and Wolff to recognize the plight of the African-American musicians in regards to the rampant racism of the time. The label’s cornerstones could see something of themselves, and what they went through in Nazi Germany, in what was happening. The pain in the eyes of the older musicians as they describe the state of the American condition at the time was still evident.

In its essence, "It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story" is a multi-layered love story. Viewers are left with a deep sense of the pure, and sometimes personally devastating, ways that Lion and Wolff loved the music. Then there is the love affair between the featured artists and the label bosses. The artists wax poetic about Lion and Wolff and their impact in their lives as well as on what was then the nascent civil rights movement.

An emotional illustration of this comes as the song "Strange Fruit" is performed by an animated Billie Holiday. We hear the spasms of suffering spring from her as it's interspliced with animations of black bodies swinging from the poplar trees. The audience is left to wonder if there are some sins that have still not been fully reckoned with yet. It is stated in the film, in many manners, that jazz is a response to man’s inhumanity towards one another but also a way out of that cycle as it has the power to bring together disparate factions under a groove.

That groove took a turn for the future when Lion and Wolff decided to record Thelonious Monk, the high priest of jazz. Lion and Wolff showed the genius of eschewing easy profit in lieu of taking chances on artists that they believed in. Monk’s influence helped Blue Note set a course for what was then modern jazz music.

There is also a dark side to the music. Many of the musicians battled demons made manifest in the form of alcohol or drugs. Still Lion and Wolff never abandoned artists that others wrote off as junkies. As one artist put it, Blue Note was more like family than a company.

In the end, this is a profoundly funny film as the viewer feels as if they are let in on some of the artist’s inside jokes. "It Must Schwing!" is also a joyful, soul-affirming insight into how some of the greatest music of the American musical canon was birthed into the world.

"It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story" will screen one more time on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 4 p.m. at the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill.