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

Ant-Man


Ant-Man on the wrong side of the tracks.

Ant-Man on the wrong side of the tracks.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Anthony Mackie, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Abby Ryder Fortson, David Dastmaichian, T.I, Hayley Atwell, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Martin Donovan, Garrett Morris, Gregg Turkington, Rod Hallett, Joe Chrest, Hayley Lovitt. Directed by Peyton Reed

Good things come in small packages. It’s a truism that was likely created by short people. Still, it can be true even for superheroes.

Scott Lang (Rudd) is not a thief. He’s a burglar. But not your ordinary burglar. He’s a man with a Masters in Electrical Engineering and plenty of skills with a computer. He saw that a software company had been ripping off its customers, so he decided just to return the funds they had been overcharging to their customers. Kind of a modern day Robin Hood.

But even though his good buddy Luis (Pena) puts him up, Scott is finding it hard to make it in the outside world. Even a job at Baskin-Robbins doesn’t pan out when they find out he’s an ex-con. Baskin-Robbins always finds out. Anyway, his ex-wife (Greer) doesn’t want him anywhere near their cute daughter Cassie (Fortson) and her new husband Paxton (Cannavale), a cop, is going to make sure he stays away.

Hank Pym (Douglas) is a brilliant inventor who came up with a particle that compresses molecules, enabling the wearer of the suit he invented to utilize them to shrink to the size of an insect. He left SHIELD after a disagreement with Howard Stark (Slattery) and more to the point, Mitchell Carson (Donovan) led him to resign.

He entered the private sector and took on a protégé named Darren Cross (Stoll). After the death of his wife, Janet van Dyne (Lovitt) led to an estrangement with his daughter Hope (Lilly) to the point where she now uses her mother’s maiden name as her own, he had largely left the company. He only came back in because Cross was on the verge of discovering the secret to his particles – and planned to use a weaponized version of the suit to sell to the highest bidder. He needs someone to steal the suit and erase all the data from the system pertaining to it. But who could pull it off?

Of course it’s Scott Lang. And he and Hope (who, finding out about Cross’ plans has teamed up with her father) have a very short time to train Scott in using the suit properly, to fight effectively in it and use all the properties (like controlling ants) to become a hero in his own right. But will it be enough to beat the villainous Yellowjacket – the alter ego of Cross?

One of the things I have admired most about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the movies are not interchangeable. Each of them has their own style and Ant-Man continues that tradition. This is much more light in tone than the previous entries in the Marvel Universe, more like Guardians of the Galaxy than Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latter of which immediately preceded it in the Marvel timeline.

And maybe the MCU needed it; I think that other than the staunchest of Marvel fans were feeling a touch of burn-out after Age of Ultron. For whatever reason the powers-that-be at Disney decided that this would come out a mere two and a half months after the preceding movie which is a poor tactical decision and will likely cost this movie millions of box office dollars. Perhaps they just wanted a longer gap between the movie that ends Marvel’s Phase II (which this one does) and the one that begins Phase III (which Captain America: Civil War will on May 6, 2016). Still, with the Avengers still in a lot of theaters, it doesn’t make sense to release this one. I guess they’re getting ready to ratcheting up the film production to three a year rather than two which Marvel is planning on doing in 2017.

In any case, I suspect that the relatively low box office numbers (which would still be the envy of plenty of summer films) is largely due to the short turnaround. It may also be due to fan dissatisfaction over the change in director (see below) as fan favorite Edgar Wright left (or was forced out as many conspiracy-minded fanboys have opined) and Peyton Reed came aboard. I can’t say that Reed was a crackerjack replacement, but he does tend to keep things very simple in terms of framing shots and blocking action, but he also realizes this is necessarily effects-driven and allows the digital wizards to do their thing and do it they do.

The effects are for the most part well-executed, although the 2001-style sequence near the end of the movie as Scott enters the Microverse is a bit psychedelic, some might even say Dali-esque. The movie works best when they are in the world with ants as big as SUVs and where Thomas the Tank Engine becomes a runaway locomotive.

Rudd has always been a personable actor with a flair for the sarcastic and his winning personality is at full throttle here. He has bulked up his musculature to superheroic proportions and despite the fact that he is playing a convict (albeit a philanthropic one) the audience roots for him from beginning to end. There were those who might have rolled their eyes when he was cast but again, it turns out to be perfect casting as Marvel seems extremely adept at matching their superheroes with the right actors to play them.

I’ve always been a big Michael Douglas fan and for me, he is the best reason to go see this. Hank Pym is undeniably the best character he’s gotten in ages and this is his best performance in years. This is the Michael Douglas we remember from such films as Romancing the Stone, Wall Street and Fatal Attraction. He owns the screen every time he’s on it.

In the supporting realm, Evangeline Lilly is somewhat enigmatic in her pageboy haircut that reminded me of silent movie star Louise Brooks; ever since her breakout performance in Lost she hasn’t really gotten a part that takes advantage of her skills until now. Hopefully she’ll get plenty of good parts off of her performance here. Also Pena shows remarkable comic ability here; he has tended to play second banana roles for the most part – lots of cops on his filmography – but he steals the show here.

The light-hearted tone may be disappointing to fans who prefer their superheroes dark and undoubtedly we’ll get plenty of that in the next several Marvel films starting with Fantastic Four next month. Still, this is fine summer entertainment, better than the majority of the blockbusters that have appeared this summer to date and that’s saying something. This won’t stand up with the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it won’t disappoint either. Marvel keeps on rolling and I for one continue to look forward to each new Marvel movie with anticipation.

REASONS TO GO: A little more light-hearted than most superhero films. Douglas gives his best performance in years.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too light for hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES: Superhero-style violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally developed by Edgar Wright who had brought the film to casting; however he dropped out at the 11th hour due to creative differences with Disney who had bought Marvel Studios in the intervening years; Reed stepped in, retaining the cast Wright had chosen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredible Shrinking Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Shaun the Sheep Movie