Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary


John Coltrane in the abstract.

(2017) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Denzel Washington (voice), John Coltrane, Common, Carlos Santana, John Densmore, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Cornel West, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Clinton, Ravi Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Heath, Antonia Andrews, Oran Coltrane, Ashley Kahn, Ben Ratliff, Kamasi Washington, Benny Golson, Michelle Coltrane. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the pantheon of jazz greats, alto saxophonist John Coltrane has to stand out among its most enduring and influential figures. While never as popular as, say, Louis Armstrong (although he did have a big hit in a revved up version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music back in 1961) his music helped jazz evolve and changed, as Carlos Santana notes, the very nucleus of jazz.

This documentary starts in media res with a heroin-addicted and alcoholic Coltrane in 1957 being fired from the Miles Davis Quintet where he had begun to hone his reputation. He faced a crossroads and a vital decision; whether to continue with the heroin and end up like his idol Charlie Parker or to turn his back on the drugs and potentially embrace greatness. He would choose the latter, kicking heroin cold turkey which shows a strength of will that characterized his entire life.

He grew up in North Carolina in a home where both his grandfathers were preachers which gave him a spiritual influence that remained with him all his life. Although he didn’t adhere to a single religion, he studied nearly all of them and incorporated them into his inspirations. He joined the Navy as World War II was ending and his first known recordings were as part of a Navy jazz band and, as Wynton Marsalis put it kindly, didn’t sound like he had much potential.

But he had the good fortune to play with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and after being fired from that gig, Thelonious Monk – all jazz legends – which helped him find his confidence to grow and embrace change. Davis would accept Coltrane back for a second stint that would include one of Davis’ pivotal albums, Almost Blue which Coltrane recorded simultaneously with his own breakout album, Giant Steps. Shortly after that, Coltrane struck out on his own.

Although his career was short in years (he would die suddenly at the age of 40 of liver cancer), he was prolific releasing some 60 albums in the last decade of his life. Scheinfeld closely follows the arc of his influences, from bebop to free jazz to music that can only be called Coltrane. It is somewhat daunting to wonder what he would have come up with and how further he would have changed music had he lived another 20 or 30 years.

The archival footage and photographs are fascinating and the interviews – particularly with social commentator, activist and academic Cornel West (who at times is almost testifying to Coltrane in a religious fervor) and former President Bill Clinton who is surprisingly insightful into Coltrane’s art. While actor Denzel Washington reads from Coltrane’s writings, we never hear the jazz legend’s actual voice; he was notoriously interview-shy. While we don’t hear Coltrane’s actual voice here, his music does the talking. It’s as much an expression of his inner soul as we are going to find. Of particular note in that regard is “Alabama,” inspired by the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the funeral of the victims of the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. The piece is mournful and yet hopeful; it follows the cadence of Dr. King’s speech and uplifts even as it grieves. It is as compelling a composition as has ever been written.

While we don’t hear Coltrane’s voice directly his personality comes to the fore mainly through the interviews with family and friends; his stepdaughter recalls him walking home late at night from a gig so he could spend his cash on shoes that she needed the next morning rather than spending it on cab fare. His childhood friend Jimmy Heath recalls how much he practiced, sometimes just fingering the sax in hotel rooms after angry guests complained about the noise.

In some ways the movie serves as a jumping off point for the music of Coltrane, although those who don’t “get” jazz may not necessarily find it compelling. However, the hope is that the film will introduce new generations to music that is sometimes described in overly enthusiastic terms. I don’t know that Coltrane’s music will change your life but it conceivably could; it has done so for many, many listeners and not all of them jazz aficionados. I don’t know that this is the ultimate tribute for Coltrane – there are an awful lot of talking heads and we don’t get as much context into the music as I might have liked  but this is an excellent place to start.

REASONS TO GO: The music is just incredible. The footage of Coltrane and his band is fascinating. The use of graphics is innovative.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. The film may not appeal to those who aren’t into jazz.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug content and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio footage of Coltrane recording was discovered in a California garage while production was underway; the filmmakers arranged for the footage to be incorporated into the film and this is the first time it has been seen anywhere, or at least for decades.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns
FINAL RATING:7.5/10
NEXT: Kong: Skull Island

Selma


Marching into history.

Marching into history.

(2014) True Life Drama (Paramount) David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Common, Tessa Thompson, Dylan Baker, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Henry G. Sanders, Keith Stanfield, Charity Jordan, Tim Roth, Stan Houston, Stephen Root, Nigel Thatch, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Jeremy Strong, Lorraine Toussaint, Tara Ochs. Directed by Ava DuVernay

Selma is a watershed moment in American history and in particular the history of the civil rights movement. The brutality of Southern oppression on its African-American citizen was beamed to all our living rooms for all to see. Martin Luther King’s efforts to organize and call attention on the suppression of voting rights for African-Americans would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he had long championed and ended decades of African-Americans having no voice in the governing of their communities, states and country.

In 1965 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just come into law and while it is a magnificent piece of legislation preventing discrimination, in the South it may not have been signed into law at all. Those African-Americans attempting to register to vote, much as activist Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) was, were met with poll taxes, or impromptu quizzes that nobody could answer, white or black in a desperate attempt for white racist Southerners to hold onto power in Dixie.

Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), already a landmark civil rights activist or, as he is known by those who oppose him, agitator as J. Edgar Hoover (Baker) puts it, approaches President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation that will prevent the kinds of abuses taking place in voter registration in the South but LBJ is less inclined to do that; he has his War on Poverty to consider, which he feels will ultimately be more beneficial to the black community. He has just too much going on to put any energy into King’s demands at the moment, but being the consummate politician he assures the civil rights leader that he will get right on it…in a couple of years. Hoover, on the other hand, wants this whole civil rights thing nipped in the bud. His surveillance of Dr. King has revealed some strain in his marriage to his wife Coretta (Ejogo) and he wants to exploit that, but Johnson prevents it.

With the violence escalating in the South, King knows he can’t wait. He decides to go to Selma, a small town in Alabama whose sheriff Jim Clark (Houston) is particularly mean and stupid and likely to do something that will give King the ammunition he needs. Activists in the Selma area are only too happy to see a national figure like Dr. King arrive on the scene, although John Lewis (James) – a future congressman who is still serving today – and James Foreman (Byers) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, are suspicious of his motives.

During an evening non-violent march, the protestors are attacked by police. Three of them – Cager Lee (Sanders), his daughter Viola Lee Jackson (Jordan) and his grandson Jimmy Lee Jackson (Stanfield) are chased into a diner. When the police arrive, they make a point of beating the crap out of the old man and his kin. When Jimmy Lee tries to protect them, he is shot in the abdomen and killed. This galvanizes the organizers, leading Rev. James Bevel (Common) to suggest a march from Selma to Montgomery.

This is exactly what Governor George Wallace (Roth) doesn’t want. His right hand man in the state troopers, Colonel Al Lingo (Root) is enlisted to take care of things. In the meantime, in order to prevent the march, the President allows Hoover to carry on with his plans, delivering a tape of Dr. King allegedly having sex with another woman. While the tape is clearly fabricated, she gets King to admit to having had affairs. In order to repair things with his family, King decides to skip the March which is set for March 7, 1965. On that day, Alabama troopers face about 600 marchers and attack them on national television, bloodying the peaceful protesters – some of them, like Amelia Boynton (Toussaint) into unconsciousness – and horrifying a nation.

King, horrified beyond measure, returns to Selma with his wife’s blessing. He knows that the march needs to take place or else it would all be for nothing. He calls on the nation, to people of conscience of all colors to come to Selma and march with him. Many do come, including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Michigan activist Viola Liuzzo (Ochs) and Unitarian minister James Reeb (Strong). With a tense stand-off between the forces of racism and the forces of freedom, would the march take place and would change come to the South?

History tells us that the March did finally take place successfully and that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 that Johnson championed would become law (until it was dismantled by the Supreme Court two years ago). Like Titanic, most of us know how the story ends. In the hands of a gifted director, we would feel the tension of those participating because they, unlike us, did not know how the story would end.

DuVernay for the most part accomplishes this. She is aided in this to a very large extent by Oyelowo who delivers a remarkable performance as the late Dr. King. There is a tendency for us to deify certain people – Dr. King, Gandhi, President Lincoln and so forth – to the point that we forget that they are human beings, far from perfect and full of frailties. DuVernay impressively gets that point across that Dr. King, as great a man and courageous a man as he was, also did things that he wasn’t proud of, also made mistakes and also had a playful sense of humor. At times he needed encouragement, phoning Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing a gospel song so that he might be reassured. At times he wasn’t as strong as his iron-willed wife Coretta was. Oyelowo captures these moments and makes the man relatable to all of us.

In fact most of the cast is impressive although Wilkinson is miscast as LBJ. The LBJ I remember was a force of nature and larger than life and Wilkinson makes him more of a backrooms conniver, which he also was but there was a charisma to him that Wilkinson doesn’t capture. Many who knew the late President have complained that the film does an injustice to his memory in its portrayal of him as obstructive and unsupportive which history tells us he was not, but this isn’t the LBJ story.

It’s not even Dr. King’s story, although he naturally dominates the screen time here. It is a story for all of us, about the tribulations of the Civil Rights activists and what they actually went through to get the rights we take for granted today. It also is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go, with events in Ferguson, Missouri mentioned pointedly in the movie’s post-credits Oscar-nominated song and parallels to modern oppression of the African American community.

Near the end we see footage purportedly of the actual March with some of it archival, although we mostly see celebrity marchers like Davis and Belafonte. Due to the rights to Dr. King’s speeches being owned by DreamWorks for a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil Rights era that has not yet come to fruition, we don’t get to hear the actual words of Dr. King’s speeches; instead, DuVernay had to rewrite them so that they were in the style of his oratory but not his actual words. Shame on DreamWorks for not allowing the film to use the words inspiring to so many.

This is one of the better movies of the Holiday Awards season and it justly received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some are moaning about DuVernay not receiving a nomination for Best Director but truth be told those that did receive the nomination also deserved to be nominated; what separated the five films that got the nod and this one are essentially splitting hairs; to my mind, she had a tendency to be a bit ham-handed in some of the activism scenes with swelling strings to the point that you couldn’t hear the dialogue but were supposed to feel inspired. It is a bit manipulative and could have been handled better. She should have trusted the material to bring out those feelings without hitting us in the head with them.

Nitpicking aside, this should be mandatory viewing for all of us who think that the need for activism has ended. We should all understand what was endured by those who fought for the rights of African-Americans and continue to be endured. Freedom is not given, it must be fought for and so many continue to fight. The legacy of Selma is with us still and should inspire all of us to rise up and support those who still need to shine the light on practices that should outrage all Americans – but still doesn’t. We shall overcome indeed, but we haven’t yet.

REASONS TO GO: MLK is humanized here. Captures the scope of the march and the events surrounding it. About damn time there was a movie about Selma.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure about the LBJ portrayal. Could have used archival footage better.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some disturbing violence of defenseless people being beaten, some brief strong language, adult themes and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Free screenings of the film were made available to 275,000 high school and middle school students.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Detachment

Muscle Shoals


The fruits of success.

The fruits of success.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Aretha Franklin, Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rick Hall, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Donna Godchaux, Jimmy Cliff, Ed King, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Clayton Ivey, Jesse Boyce, Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Johnson, John Paul White. Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier

Most aficionados of great music will know the name of Muscle Shoals. A small Alabama town on the Tennessee River, it would become the site for the recording of some of the greatest songs in the modern pop music era. FAME studios, founded by Rick Hall back in the late 1950s above the City Drug Store, but relocated the studio to its current location in 1962 where the first hit, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” was recorded.

From then on, some of the most recognized songs of the rock era were recorded there including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” The house band, made up of session musicians Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on guitars and Spooner Oldham on organ were known as the Swampers and created a funk and country laced sound that became signature of the Muscle Shoals sound. Many artists, including Paul Simon (who recorded his seminal Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon there) were surprised to find out that the musicians were white.

In 1969 the Swampers decided to become their own bosses and founded their own studio across town. Muscle Shoals Sound would become home to Lynyrd Skynyrd who recorded some of their seminal work there (the Swampers are name-checked in the iconic Skynyrd tune “Sweet Home Alabama”) as well as other class rock mainstays including the Rolling Stones who recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there. Hall was understandably upset, seeing the defection as a betrayal as he had just signed a big deal with Capital. Muscle Shoals on the other hand had made a deal with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and this drove a further wedge between Wexler and Hall who’d already had a falling out. Hall however persevered, bringing country artists like Mac Davis and Jerry Reed and continues to bring in some of the best rock, R&B and soul artists in the world to his studio which thrives to this day. Meanwhile Muscle Shoals Sound has moved to a larger facility and the new owners of the building they were originally in have plans to turn it into a music museum.

First-time director Camalier intersperses interviews with beautiful shots of the Tennessee River, the rural area around Muscle Shoals and the quaint small town environment of the town itself. Most of the interview subjects refer to a “magic” that permeates the air around Muscle Shoals – well, the white ones do at any rate.

During the ’60s black artists weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Hawkins, a white man, talks about the looks he’d get from locals when he’d take black artists to the local luncheonette on a meal break. One of the film’s great faults is that this is glossed over to a large extent; we hear more about the white artists’ impression of the situation than with black artists like Carter and Sledge. I would have liked to hear more of their viewpoint of a situation in which they had complete artistic freedom and respect in the recording studio but once outside it became second class citizens. I got the sense however that things in Muscle Shoals weren’t as bad as they were elsewhere.

Much of the film really concentrates on the glory days of the area in the 60s and 70s. We do see Alicia Keys recording a song at FAME but largely there is little about either studio past 1980. The interviews sometimes overlap on the same ground and I would have liked a little more examination a to why a small town in Alabama was able to have such a major impact on popular music – at the end of the day however I think that there are a whole lot of intangibles having to do with the right place, the right time and the right people.

The soundtrack is pretty incredible as you might expect and some of the stories that the artists tell are worth the price of admission alone (Keith Richards asserts, for example, that he wrote most of “Wild Horses” in the bathroom moments before recording it). While this isn’t the most informative documentary you’re ever going to see, it is nonetheless essential viewing for anyone who loves rock, soul and country.

REASONS TO GO: Great music. Gives a real sense of time and place and its importance in making musical history.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really spend much time in the present. Can be repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly foul language, smoking, drug content, a snippet of partial nudity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio founded by the Swampers was located in an old casket factory.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frozen

Forrest Gump


Forrest Gump

Life is like a box of chocolate.

(1994) Drama (Paramount) Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinese, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Michael Conner Humphreys, Margo Moorer, Haley Joel Osment, Siobhan J. Fallon, Hanna R. Hall, Marlena Smalls, Geoffrey Blake, Dick Cavett, Nora Dunfee. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Every so often a movie comes along that simply connects on a nearly universal level. It becomes a cultural touchstone, referred to for years after its release and most people will understand the references to it.

Forrest Gump is such a movie. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Hanks (his second Oscar in a row after Philadelphia). Catch phrases like “Stupid is as stupid does” and “Life is like a box of chocolates” made it into the lexicon, not to mention “Run, Forrest, Run!”

Forrest Gump (Hanks) was born in Greenbow, Alabama to a mama (Fields) who rented out rooms in her large house to boarders, one of whom would turn out to be Elvis Presley. In fact, Forrest would have encounters with a number of historic, political and cultural figures of the 20th century throughout his life but he only has eyes for Jenny (Wright). She, however, had the rotten luck to be born to an abusive father and spends most of her life running away in one form or another whether that be through drugs or through a succession of skeezy men.

Gump isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier – in fact, he might well be the dimmest – but he attends the University of Alabama on a football scholarship and ends up going to Vietnam after his college days are over. There he meets Bubba Blue (Williamson), a fellow soldier who like Forrest is a bit on the slow side but Bubba still has big dreams – running a shrimp boat of his own from his home in Bayou LeBatre, Louisiana. They are under the command of Lieutenant Dan (Sinese), whose family has a history of sacrifice in war.

Things being what they are, Gump gets wounded in Vietnam and while convalescing discovers ping pong and turns out to be rather good at it. He goes on a goodwill tour of China and upon his return home goes on the Dick Cavett show along with John Lennon and inadvertently supplies the former Beatle with the lyrics of his most iconic song.

He also follows through on his promise to Bubba, buying a shrimping boat and taking on Lieutenant Dan as a first mate, is blessed with the good fortune of being the only surviving boat in Bayou LeBatre after a hurricane decimates it’s shrimping fleet. This enables Forrest to buy more boats and with Lieutenant Dan’s business acumen leading the way, becomes wealthy.

But all his wealth, all his fame mean nothing to Forrest Gump. What matters is his Jenny, the love he’s carried his entire life but she is damaged goods. Can she ever love a man who isn’t very smart?

Zemeckis has in many ways created a movie that captured America during its most tumultuous phase, from the 60s through the 80s. It is a country in turmoil, rocked with anti-war protests and a wide racial divide. America is growing up on its way to 200 years old, going from the self-confident 50s to the troubled 70s, from JFK to Nixon and beyond. Most of the major events of the era are touched by Forrest Gump in some way, whether directly or indirectly.

Hanks gives a performance that is going to forever be one of his most strongly identified. Hanks will always be Forrest Gump to a certain degree and justifiably so – while Forrest Gump is intellectually challenged (slow is how they used to term it), he has a good heart. He is in many ways the ultimate American – not book smart maybe, but hard working and kind. These are for the most part attributes that Americans admire, particularly these days when education is regarded with suspicion in some quarters.

There are those who have analyzed the film and criticized it (and the Winston Groom book it is based on) as promoting an anti-intelligence mindset, which I think is a bit harsh. Many have called it an embrace of conservative values and an indictment of the failure of the counterculture and liberalism in general. Forrest, who embraces traditional American values, is successful. Jenny, who embraces the criticism of those values, becomes a drug addict and the victim of abuse throughout her life; she only finds peace and contentment when she is with Forrest. Conservative politicians have often cited the film as an affirmation of their political ideals.

I do believe that the movie was meant to be more apolitical than it is now believed to be. Regardless of whether you believe this to be anti-intellectual and/or anti-Liberal, I think we can all agree this is wonderful entertainment and a terrific movie. It is most certainly one of the best movies of the 90s, and one of Hanks’ most memorable performances ever – reasons enough to check it out if you are one of the few who hasn’t already.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the classic movies of the 90s.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems to celebrate heart over smarts.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some drugs, a little bit of sex, a touch of violence and a modicum of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The legs of Gary Sinese were wrapped in a special blue fabric so that they could be digitally removed during the post-production process.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a trivia track that covers most of the music (hosted by Rolling Stone contributor Ben Fong-Torres) and a Q&A session of Zemeckis, Hanks, Sinese and producer Joe Roth at the University of Southern California on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the movie’s release. There are also some audition tapes as well as a plethora of featurettes on the special effects and sound of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $677.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was as big a blockbuster as it gets.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zelig

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes