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

Advertisements

New Releases for the Week of April 22, 2016


The Huntsman Winter's WarTHE HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR

(Universal) Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sam Claflin, Sophie Cookson, Sheridan Smith. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

This prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman pits Queen Ravenna and her sister the Ice Queen Freya, at odds over the magic mirror. Following a tragic heartbreak, Freya retreats to a remote ice castle where she works on training an army of huntsmen with one rule; harden your hearts against love. When her two best break that law, they are banished but when Freya is betrayed by her sister, only the banished Huntsmen can save her.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Fantasy Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for fantasy action violence and some sensuality)

A Hologram for the King

(Saban) Tom Hanks, Ben Whishaw, Tom Skerritt, Sarita Choudhury. A businessman, down on his luck and desperate, goes to Saudi Arabia to close the deal that could save him. However the inevitable culture clashes stymie his attempts to make the deal happen. He is forced to rely on a wise-cracking taxi driver and an alluring Saudi doctor to help him win through.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use)

 Compadres

(Pantelion) Eric Roberts, Kevin Pollak, Omar Chaparro, Joey Morgan. A Mexican cop, framed for a crime he didn’t commit, is released from prison and sets his sights on Santos, who is the one who framed him. However, Santos has kidnapped the cop’s girlfriend and taken her across the border to San Diego. The cop’s one chance at getting his girlfriend alive is to work with an unlikely ally – a teenage American hacker who stole $10 million from the crime boss. But it will take all their disparate skills to stay one step ahead of Santos who wants the both of them dead.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal The Loop

Rating: NR

Elvis & Nixon

(Bleecker Street) Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville. It’s a legendary photo; rock legend Elvis Presley and President Richard M. Nixon shaking hands at the White House. But what were the circumstances for this historic meeting? This film is a fanciful and funny supposition as to what really happened.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some language)

Everybody Wants Some!!

(Paramount) Blake Jenner, Juston Street, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin. Doing for the 80s what Dazed and Confused did for the 70s, director Richard Linklater goes to college in that decade, following a bunch of freshmen trying to navigate the social minefield that is higher education while trying to make the baseball team. As is usual for a Linklater film, expect an awesome soundtrack.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Period Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content, drug use and some nudity)

Louder Than Bombs

(Paladin) Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne, Amy Ryan, David Strathairn. When a famous war photographer passes away, her sons and their father drift apart. When they reunite for a celebration of her life several years later, the fractured family is forced to confront their feelings about the woman who spent so much time away from them, and each other. This played the Florida Film Festival last week.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG (for language, some sexual content, nudity and violent images)

Miles Ahead

(Sony Classics) Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emayatzy Corinealdi. After a period of inactivity jazz legend Miles Davis is returning to the limelight with an album that would eventually take its place among the greatest ever recorded. He spends a few lost days with a writer from Rolling Stone conspiring to recover stolen master tapes and reminiscing about his romance with Frances Taylor.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website
.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence)