Did Belgian-born Gypsy musician Django Reinhardt need to be the most celebrated guitarist of his day to survive a Nazi regime hellbent on eradicating his kind? It's an intriguing premise, but one only fitfully explored in Étienne Comar's World War II-set biopic "Django," about events surrounding the gifted jazzman's attempt to leave occupied France in 1943.
Comar's fictionally enhanced scenario is built on the premise that the internationally renowned Reinhardt, played by Reda Kateb as a Zen-like artisan when onstage and an insolent diva off, had to be prodded into trading his fame for survival when a well connected ex-mistress (Cécile de France) arrives in Paris to convince him to escape to Switzerland.
Trapped in a border town and reunited with Romany brethren whose plight gnaws at him, he grows a political conscience and eventually takes part in a daring plan tied to a concert for German officials. There are many fine scenes built around the pick-and-strum maestro's love/need to perform — at a lively Paris concert, with fellow Gypsies in a mournful encampment, and in a boisterous bar — and they speak well to the ways music can create oases of humanity and connection anywhere.
But the connecting scenes, often underlighted and underdramatized, have a puzzling flatness, neither penetrating as insights into Reinhardt's psychology nor illuminating as a portrait of an artist in wartime. Although Kateb carries a certain arrogant genius' authenticity with his opaque portrayal, "Django" will leave fans of the legend merely eager to return to their beloved recordings and let their ears take in the greatness.
In French, German, English and Romany with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts; also screens Jan. 22-23 at selected Laemmle theaters as part of "Culture Vulture" series.