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Queens of Jazz: the Joy and Pain of the Jazz Divas

Fri May 10, 9-10pm, BBC4

‘They were just better than we are.’ That’s contemporary jazz singer Gregory Porter’s verdict on the divas profiled in this film. There’s no doubt that the featured ladies – who include Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone – all lived remarkable, storied lives and produced timeless bodies of work. But there’s a slight sense of documentary-by-numbers about a film which assembles a character profile for the female jazz singer while pointing out their essential differences.

This has the effect of revealing a flaw in the concept’s structure – namely, that each of the subjects deserves an hour to themselves. As it is, the film is in danger of reducing these unique lives to an amorphous mass of period jazz style while struggling to highlight the substance. Still, there’s plenty of lovely footage of the ladies in action, even if the talking heads struggle to add much of real value.