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Monday, April 10, 2017

I CALLED HIM MORGAN, CHASING TRANE, and Evaluating This Year's Jazz Documentaries

At a time when jazz is populating mainstream cinema and helping white filmmakers win Oscars, it seems a good time to revisit some of the important voices that helped re-energize the genre and influence what it sounds like today. Two recent documentaries, I CALLED HIM MORGAN and CHASING TRANE: THE JOHN COLTRANE DOCUMENTARY, highlight two people who did just that—Lee Morgan and John Coltrane. But while the pair of films uncover the stories behind both great talents, they do little to spark conversation.

Perhaps I'm spoiled by the spree of great documentaries released last year, including I Am Not Your Negro and O.J.: Made in America, but these two new offerings left me stale. Sure, I now know more about the life and legacy of both jazz giants, whose lives ended far too soon, but it's apparent that the filmmakers considered their importance and relevance unnecessary to portray or presumed. Either way, it sucks the urgency out of both narratives. In I CALLED HIM MORGAN, writer/director Kasper Collin decides to tell Morgan's story through the eyes of those who knew him, but in particular his wife Helen, who shot and killed him at a nightclub in 1972 when he was just 33 years old. As a result, his story is seen like an impending tragedy than anything else. We see archival footage from his collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and John Coltrane, and hear audio recordings of Helen's taped confession recapping the events of that fateful evening 20 years after it occurs. But much of these details could be found on Morgan's extensive Wikipedia page, and they don't do much to explain why a movie was essential. I wonder whether fans who've followed and studied his career all these decades will see differently.

Then there's CHASING TRANE, whose subject is arguably the more popular of the two films. Coltrane is still emulated, discussed, referred to, and admired still to this day. He's considered among the ranks of Dizzy Gillespie. So naturally, a film on his life and legacy is instantly appealing. But even with its A-list interviews with his family, including his son Ravi Coltrane, collaborators like Benny Golson, and those he influenced like Common, Carlos Santana, and President Bill Clinton, the narrative doesn't seem fresh. And Denzel Washington providing Coltrane's narration is more weird than it sounds. On the one hand, it's Washington, so why not. And on the other hand, Washington's voice is so distinctive and unfamiliar to Coltrane's that it surprises you every time he speaks. He just doesn't seem connected enough with the material to make you feel like you're hearing from Coltrane himself, despite the fact that they're his words. The narrative isn't intimate.

CHASING TRANE offers ripples in Coltrane's legacy, including his heroin addiction, less-than-perfect marriages, and spiritual awakening. But it still feels empty, uncritical, and completely disassociated with today's times.



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