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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Gabrielle


The essence of joie de vivre.

The essence of joie de vivre.

(2013) Romance (eOne) Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Alexandre Landry, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Vincent-Guillaume Otis, Benoit Gouin, Sebastien Ricard, Marie Gignac, Isabelle Vincent, Robert Charlebois, Veronique Beaudet, Bruce Dinsmore, Gregory Charles, Maxime Allard, Marc Primeau. Directed by Louise Archambault

Woman Power

Florida Film Festival 2014

Navigating through entering adulthood and independence isn’t easy, particularly when you have a number of complicated relationships. If you’re developmentally challenged, it is so much more challenging.

Gabrielle (Marion-Rivard) has Williams syndrome, a rare condition that creates learning difficulties but also an unusually cheerful demeanor and strong social and language skills (Marion-Rivard has the condition in real life). She lives in a group home in Montreal, supported by her sister Sophie (Desormeaux-Poulin) who takes her out shopping and for the occasional mani-pedi. Her mother (Vincent) has a very distant relationship with Gabrielle.

Gabrielle, as is not unusual for someone with her condition, smiles all the time but she has two particular reasons to smile. The first is her participation in the Muses, a chorale of developmentally challenged adults that has actually become good enough to appear in concert with the legendary French-Canadian pop star Robert Charlebois (playing himself). She is a talented singer in her own right and is often tasked with performing solo parts for the chorale. The second, and most important reason for her smile is Martin (Landry), her boyfriend who lives in the same group home and also sings with the chorus.

Gabrielle and Martin have begun to get sexually curious and when they are found half-clothed in Martin’s room, Martin’s over-protective mother (Gignac) yanks him from the home and forbids any contact with Gabrielle. Despite her Williams-derived cheerfulness, Gabrielle is devastated. She isn’t aware that she did anything wrong and all she knows is there’s an ache in her heart that only Martin can fill. She becomes a little testier than usual, insisting that she can be independent and live on her own in an apartment. When she tries to take the bus to go see Martin, she gets lost and confused, further frustrating her. To make matters worse, Sophie is getting ready to move overseas to be with her own boyfriend in Africa where she’ll teach, a dream of hers.

Archambault, to her credit, doesn’t sugarcoat the issues in the movie. On the surface, the issues here facing Gabrielle are pretty much the same as have appeared in dozens of movies but given the circumstances, things are a little more tricky. We get to see the challenges people like Gabrielle and those of other developmental disabilities face every day. We get to see them as human beings.

Marion-Rivard is so personable and likable it’s hard not to get behind Gabrielle. It’s also hard to tell where the actress leaves off and the character begins, given the Williams syndrome. Her elfin features (another byproduct of Williams) are adorable and her smile is genuine, coming straight from the heart directly to the lips. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a girl like that?

A lot of time is spent in the rehearsals and performances of the chorale (with Charlebois contributing his distinctive voice in the final third of the film). It illustrates the true healing power of music; no matter how down Gabrielle is about her situation, singing and participating in making music always brings her back up which is true for a lot of us. Incidentally, while the pop music of Charlebois is less well known in the States, I defy anyone to walk away from this movie without the final song performed at the concert, “Lindberg” with its distinctive chorus of airlines being ticked off followed by hand claps, stuck firmly in their heads.

While there are some professional actors in the production, a lot of the roles are filled with actors with developmental challenges and non-actors alike. That gives the movie a raw, unrefined feeling that is a refreshing contrast to the usual Hollywood gloss – when you think about it, life is raw and unrefined too. It’s those like Gabrielle – who carry a surfeit of innocence and cheer – that counterbalance the harshness and drama that most of the rest of us contribute to global karma.

REASONS TO GO: Doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. Marion-Rivard very personable.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally steers towards the sentimental.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality portrayed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Canada’s official submission to the Academy for the 2013 Foreign Language Film Oscar.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Short Term 12

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Woman Power continues!

Quartet (2012)


Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart's 50th Class Reunion.

Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart’s 50th Class Reunion.

(2013) Dramedy (Weinstein) Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Trevor Peacock, Michael Byrne, Ronnie Fox, Patricia Loveland, Eline Powell. Directed by Dustin Hoffman

Going from the spotlight to obscurity must be an incredibly hard situation to accept, particularly when it is age that has relegated you thus. Even the most beautiful and bucolic of environments may pale when compared to the limelight.

Beecham House in the English countryside is certainly a beautiful environment. Named for the noted British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, it is now a retirement home for professional musicians – opera singers, popular vocalists, chamber musicians and the like. Like many such institutions, it faces economic difficulties and relies on benefit concerts staged by its residents, many of whom still have names that resonate on the English music scene.

The upcoming concert marking the birthday of Giusseppe Verdi is the occasion for a kind of organized panic overseen by Cedric Livingston (Gambon) – who pronounces his first name See-dric, not Seh-dric as he reminds Wilf Bond (Connolly) regularly to his great exasperation.

Otherwise, things are pretty much as normal at Beecham House where friends and colleagues Wilf, Reggie Paget (Courtenay) and Cissy Robson (Collins) live a quiet life of looking back. Wilf though is just as concerned with chasing skirt as his libido remains in full flower even if the bloom has withered a bit on the rose. Cissy is growing increasingly forgetful but it is just a part of the indignities of old age. The somewhat courtly Reggie gives lectures to opera to schoolchildren who are more interested in rap. Everything is more or less peaceful.

But things are turned upside down on themselves and into an uproar when the pretty but harried Dr. Lucy Cogan (S. Smith) introduces the newest resident – the diva Jean Horton (M. Smith), one of the most famous and beloved opera singers of her day. However, she had a tumultuous marriage to Reginald that ended with her infidelity. They haven’t spoken in decades.

But worse still Cedric wants a reunion between Jean, Reggie, Wilf and Cissy whose quartet of Rigoletto‘s “Bella figlia dell’amore” was one of opera’s greatest moments ever and has recently been re-released on compact disc – which in itself is a bit anachronistic. Jean however wants no part of it and Reggie while understanding that the revenue such a reunion would generate might well save their home is understandably unenthusiastic for such a grouping. However, he’s game and sets out to change the mind of the diva.

Cissy for some reason seems particularly motivated to see it happen and she befriends Jean who seems somewhat lost and soon the reason for Jean’s reluctance becomes clear – she’s terrified that her voice is gone, that in doing this performance her fans will always remember her for a last debacle instead of the great career she enjoyed. And as the time draws nigh for the performance, it appears certain that there may not be a home for her to live in for much longer.

This is Hoffman’s directorial debut (technically he directed Straight Time for a few days back in 1978 but withdrew after he found it too difficult to direct and act simultaneously – he doesn’t appear hear as an actor for that reason) and he chose his material wisely. As a director he’s smart enough to keep things fairly simple; there aren’t a lot of camera tricks here, the storytelling is simple and elegant. While he doesn’t show anything extraordinary neither does he make any mistakes.

This is based on a play by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, a Hollywood veteran whose résumé includes The Dresser, The Pianist and Being Julia. Like many of his works, Quartet shows Harwood’s fascination for performers and their venues. This shows performers in the twilight of their careers which you’d almost expect from Harwood who is himself a septuagenarian.

The material here holds some interest but it is the actors who really elevate the work. Connolly, one of Scotland’s great treasures, is at his very best here – a charming Lothario who has no problem expressing his sexuality, seemingly fascinated that he still has any. Wilf claims that a stroke left him without any sort of filter so he says what’s on his mind which the others seemingly forgive him for, although the wily Scot may well be just saying that so he doesn’t have to waste time and energy prevaricating.

But Courtenay will be the one I remember here. His quiet gentility has a timeless quality to it. When I think of English gentlemen, it is Reginald Paget that will come to mind. He’s polite and gentle, but also shows fits of outrage and wounded pride from time to time. More than the others he’s accepted who he is and his place in the universe. His mind is still active and seeks to learn more about the world around him but he isn’t especially eager to seek out the world in general. He wants a “dignified senility,” he tells Wilf and you can imagine nothing but for him. Courtenay is one of those actors who has appeared onscreen only periodically over the years but every time he does you find yourself wishing he would appear more often.

Maggie Smith, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her work here, delivers a haunting performance as a diva who is terrified of a future of anonymity and decay. “I used to be someone, you know” she says and it is perfectly clear how important that status was to her, to be someone. Her harsh exterior hides that insecurity that she’ll be forgotten in the end, a fate worse than death for someone like Jean. Smith, who last year performed in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which some have (quite erroneously I think) compared this to, shows once again her extraordinary range as an actress. There are a lot of layers to the character and she nails them all, never hitting a single false note.

Veterans Gambon and Collins also deliver in their roles. Hoffman in a showing of finesse, fills much of the cast with actual retired British musicians and in a bit of a grace note during the end credits shows the mostly elderly cast with their stage credits along with pictures of them from their glory days. Hoffman shows some promise as a director if this acting thing doesn’t work out for him.

I found myself really liking this movie early on from the absolutely magnificent gardens and spaces in Beecham House and environs to the charm of the actors. While there were a few spots which seemed to be a bit on the too-sweet side, for the most part this is a really good movie that has to do with aging gracefully which I suppose anyone could do if they had a place like Beecham House to do it in – a place filled with music in all hours and in all corners. I could certainly retire happily to a place like that.

REASONS TO GO: Connolly is a gem. Courtenay, Smith and Collins are very much underrated who make the most out of every opportunity. Gambon is marvelous. Beautifully shot.

REASONS TO STAY: Can get treacly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some mildly sexual suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie of the same title that Maggie Smith has been in; the first Quartet came out in 1981 and is completely unrelated to this one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: How About You?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Intermedio

A Late Quartet


Practice makes perfect.

Practice makes perfect.

(2012) Drama (EntertainmentOne) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, Wallace Shawn, Liraz Charhi, Madhur Jaffrey, Nina Lee, Megan McQuillan, Anne Sofie van Otter, Jasmine Hope Bloch. Directed by Yaron Zilberman

 

A string quartet is more than the sum of its parts. The members must learn to play not only with great discipline and technical expertise but must learn to anticipate the play of the other members. Only when they are thinking about one another can they truly harmonize beautifully.

The Fugue Quartet began life as a pioneering group of young musicians looking to push the boundaries of classical music and have largely done that. They approach their 25th anniversary with plans for another major tour spotlighting Beethoven’s Opus 131, one of the most difficult pieces for quartets due to the pacing and the length (seven movements instead of four). In fact, the instruments often start to go slightly out of tune by the seventh movement, forcing the musicians to compensate for each other.

But the well-oiled machine that is the Fugue is about to face their biggest crisis. Cellist Peter Mitchell (Walken), the heart and soul of the group, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and won’t be able to play for much longer. He determines the first concert of the 25th season will be his farewell.

The news hits the other member of the quartet hard, particularly Juliette Gelbart (Keener), the viola player who was literally raised by Peter and Miriam (van Otter), the opera-singing wife of Peter who had passed away the year previously. The news also sets in motion a number of events, starting with Juliette’s husband Robert (Hoffman), the quartet’s second violin who has chafed under the autocratic rule of first violinist Daniel Lerner (Ivanir), the technically perfect first violin who likes things the way they are – and is even trying to convince Peter to stay.

Peter’s mind is made up though and he has thoughts of his replacement (Lee) although he’ll have to pry her away from the leader of her trio (Shawn) who isn’t inclined to let her go. In the meantime Robert has announced that he no longer wants to play second violin exclusively; he wants to alternate in the first chair. Daniel is having none of it and to Robert’s dismay and frustration, Juliette supports Daniel and not him.

This leads to a particularly dumb move on Robert’s part which sets in motion events that will pull Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alexandra (Poots) who is also a musician, and threaten to tear apart the quartet before they make it to the farewell concert.

First-time filmmaker Zilberman gets to work with an extraordinary cast and he makes the most of it; this might well be the most well-acted movie over all I’ve seen this year. Walken is on a role of really good performances and he continues it here. But it’s Hoffman who really impresses. This is one of his best roles in the past five years. At first you think Robert is being petulant and childish but as the movie progresses you realize that this is a man who has been second fiddle in every aspect of his life, not just in the quartet. It’s heartbreaking to watch him self-destruct.

Poots is a revelation. I’d thought her just a pretty face more or less but she has a scene with Keener in which long-percolating resentments between mother and daughter finally see the light of day and as such resentments often are it’s ugly and captivating.

The movie isn’t what you’d call fast paced; although the Beethoven piece is rousing and lively, the music that moves through the movie is the current of these musician’s lives. They live quiet, comfortable lives that are filled with the most beautiful music on earth. Heck, they’re responsible for making a lot of it so why not?

This is a movie about rhythms interrupted and so it might at times not sit well with those who like their movies to be more tranquil. It is also quite predictable (does anybody not see what Danny’s character does coming from nearly the beginning of the film?) and at times has that snooty pretentiousness that you only find in the fine arts.

I really liked this movie. It takes a look at the discipline that goes in to being a world class musician, and at how being part of a group – not just in rock and roll or even just in classical music but ANY group – requires the egos be put aside, that the focus is and always must be the good of the whole over the needs of the individual. It is not natural for human beings to think that way which makes it a minor miracle when they do.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of good performances both musically and from the actors.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places and pretentious in others.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some bad words scattered here and there and a few scenes of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one time Ethan Hawke was cast in the film but had to withdraw due to scheduling conflicts.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are respectable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Footnote

STRING QUARTET LOVERS: The actors received rigorous training in how to properly play their instruments but the music you actually hear is from the world-renowned Brentano Quartet.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Mummy (1999)

New Releases for the Week of October 30, 2009


Michael_Jacksons_This_Is_It_5

Just in case you forgot the name of the Michael Jackson movie...

 

MICHAEL JACKSON’S THIS IS IT

(Columbia) Michael Jackson, Kenny Ortega, Travis Payne, Michael Bearden, Dorian Holley, Judith Hill, Bashiri Johnson, Orianthi, Tommy Organ. Directed by Kenny Ortega

This is a movie that was never supposed to be a movie. Shortly before his untimely death, Michael Jackson went into rehearsals for an extended stage show he would perform in London that was to be the basis of a comeback for the King of Pop. Of course, we all know that wasn’t to be. Love him or hate him, there is no denying that the man was one of the most talented performers of his generation and this will be the last footage of him in any sort of performance whatsoever. While it is slated for a limited two week run, chances are it will be extended, but if you are a true blue diehard Michael Jackson fan, you won’t want to chance it. I’m just hoping they’ll let the man rest in peace after the movie finishes its undoubtedly profitable run – the fascination the media has for all things Jackson has become rather ghoulish.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some suggestive choreography and scary images)

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

(International Film Circuit) Gertrude Berg, Lewis Berg, Norman Lear, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Before Ellen deGeneres, before Mary Tyler Moore, before even Lucille Ball there was Gertrude Berg. She wrote, produced, directed and starred in a radio comedy called “The Rise of the Goldbergs” that was so popular that Berg regularly competed with Eleanor Roosevelt in the polls for the title of most popular woman in the United States. She became one of the first stars of television and would receive the first Emmy for Best Actress in history. She would also die in 1966 nearly forgotten by both the public and the industry that she helped create. Her influence would inspire not only industry giants but also people from all walks of life, most especially Jewish women. Her story is told here in a mix of contemporary interviews and archival footage from her show.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: Unrated