2016, Movies

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2016, John Scheinfeld)

This is a prestige documentary about John Coltrane featuring Denzel Washington of all people reading Coltrane’s own words, as well as a collection of interviews with Coltrane’s children (and step-daughter), critics, historians, biographers, fellow and later musicians and Bill Clinton. But if you are at all a fan of the man’s work, and you have much about him, this film offers pretty much nothing new.

There’s nothing wrong with this film aside from, perhaps, it’s odd point of entry, mid-career, as so many of these films do now. (I don’t know why biographical films think they should start mid-career. I guess they think it’s more of a hook. But if I’m watching a movie about Trane, presumably I’m interested.) It’s a conventional documentary that tells the story of Trane and his music, and what that music meant both to other musicians and, to some extent, society at large.

But there’s not enough context for people who don’t know anything about jazz. I can’t imagine that, if I had watched it with the girlfriend, she would have fully understood Trane’s role in the transition from jazz as a monolith to jazz as a bunch of fractured traditions. And the greater historical context, such as it is, is minimal. There’s (relatively) lots of stuff about Coltrane’s personal life and the bands he had, but it’s only surface deep. This feels like a missed opportunity.

Mostly, what we get is talking heads telling us why we should care – and Cornell West outright lecturing us –  with the music demonstrating why we might want to care. But, for someone like me, who has listened to rather a lot of Trane, there’s nothing here I didn’t already know. And there’s no real argument for the film that hasn’t been stated better in some book (or even in some liner notes).

So this movie is fine, but it’s for people who have only heard the name, and would rather not read a biography or pick up Giant Steps. And, even then, might lead to more questions than it answers.


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