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

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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