By David Elliott
APPETIZER: Reviews of Chasing Trane and Obit
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
The horn seems to be listening to an inner monolog unlimited by time, location or audience. And the player is bound to his horn in soulful embrace. It is John Coltrane, on the alto or tenor sax, climbing the peaks of “A Love Supreme,” or cool-crooning “It Never Entered My Mind,” or stream-riffing his joyful, unexpected hit, “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.
John Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane starts off with cosmic graphics of stellar nebulae. And a giddy voice compares Coltrane to Beethoven and Shakespeare. Not even in the field of jazz enthusiasm, where hyperbole wails, should a great artist be lauded with that jive. But the documentary backs up most of its rhetoric. We see a tongue-tied kid up from Southern poverty and a broken home, learning his “chops” from Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, getting fired from Davis’s great ’50s quartet for heroin-addicted fizzles, climbing back with help from Thelonious Monk, killing his habit “cold turkey,” finding a new parity (and purity) with Miles, then starting his own group that pushed the edge beyond bop into the realm of Trane (some of the later experiments sound oral-compulsive, and reminded me of Aldous Huxley’s remark that Jackon Pollock’s drip paintings were like carpeting that “could go on forever”).
I don’t think Scheinfeld quite finds the secretive depths of Charlotte Zwerin’s great documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser. But, with a lot of good clips and graphics, and testimonies of love from Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, McCoy Tyner and other veterans (and family members, ever-giddy Cornel West, ex-Prez Bill Clinton and a delightful Japanese fanatic), we hear some of the loveliest, most urgently sincere music ever put on film. The muse here is growth. Coltrane went from zealot to mess-up, then from pioneer to prophet, finding grace notes of a lyrical faith in his message of sound. He became a superb musician and a deeply admirable man. The combination is rare in jazz, or any art.
Only in Obit can you find a posthumous nod to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev right near a savvy tribute to Robert T. James, inventor of the Slinky. This is the second fine documentary spawned in recent years by the New York Times. In 2010 came Bill Cunningham New York, a delightful tribute to the paper’s beloved, bicycling photographer of street fashion and couture shows (Bill’s obit ran last year, on June 25). Vanessa Gould’s film about the writers and editors of the obituary section is more house-bound, much less street. But it expands beyond insider talk in Times offices by using the paper’s astonishing photo library, and life-reviving films of the famous or now largely forgotten dead.
In olden times up to 30 people worked in the paper’s “morgue.” The vast data collection (much of it envelopes for paper clippings) is now served only by Jeff Roth, keeper of the pre-digital memory of the “paper of record.” Sardonically perusing his crammed empire of filing cabinets, Roth is upset on finding that the clips packet on Gertrude Berg, the early TV and radio actress, was mis-filed (Gertrude would have chuckled). We hear from writers talking about deadlines (one had four hours to sum up Michael Jackson), or fretting about finding sources, or missing the clatter and zing of typewriters (an editor keeps her old Royal on hand). Some muse, with a mix of pride and pathos, that they are small cogs of closure for larger lives. No longer must their writings be starchy or pious, but decorum still applies and PC is a tireless buzz-fly.
I wish the film followed from start to finish the full obit path of a modern, highly resonant person (George Carlin? Bill Buckley? Chuck Berry?). An entirely worthy revival is Elinor Smith, a once-famous teen “aviatrix.” The Times prepared an obituary “advance” on the girlish sky-climber in 1931. It came into good use when Smith died at 98 in 2010. Her obit took flight.
SALAD (A List)
Twelve Ace Jazz Movies, in order of arrival: Satchmo the Great (Murrow/Friendly, 1956), Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Bert Stern, 1959), All Night Long (Basil Dearden, 1962), Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier, 1986), Kansas City (Robert Altman, 1986), Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (Charlotte Zwerin, 1988), Let’s Get Lost (Bruce Weber, 1989), Mo’ Better Blues (Spike Lee, 1990), A Great Day in Harlem (Jean Bach, 1994), Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders, 1999), Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999) and Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
No one else topped off a fading marriage like Orson Welles, directing his almost-ex Rita Hayworth in 1946 for The Lady From Shanghai: “Some scenes (outside Acapulco) were filmed near a crocodile-infested river; in a scene where Rita dives into the ocean from Morro Rock, the rock had to be scraped of poisonous barnacles, and a Mexican swimming champ armed with a spear had to continually swim near Rita to warn off deadly barracudas in the water. Rita could not take the heat (and) at least once actually collapsed.” Despite the ordeal, she and Orson remained on remarkably cordial terms after divorcing. (Quote from Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles).
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Robert Altman’s free-flying methods sometimes threw players off stride, even comedy wizard Lily Tomlin in Nashville. She recalled the “scene in the café when Keith (Carradine) is singing, you did not know where the camera was.” Later she “saw how they shot it and they were moving past the other women and pushing it on me, and my eyes were in shadow and I thought, I’ve failed this. I’ve failed this really great moment.” She went home in tears, but her Linnea was superb work. (From the Elliott Gould/The Long Goodbye chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) mulls his creative dilemma in 8½ (Embassy Pictures, 1963; director Federico Fellini, cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo.)
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