http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4pmPPtKU64 to view the Thelonious Monk documentary, “Straight No Chaser,” Bret Primack’s YouTube pick of the week.
Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) is a documentary about the life of Thelonious Monk. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Bruce Ricker, and directed/co-produced by Charlotte Zwerin, it features live performances by Monk and his group, and posthumous interviews with friends and family. The film was created when a large amount of archived footage of Monk was found in the 1980s,
A recurrent image in Charlotte Zwerin’s remarkable documentary, ”Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” is of the jazz pianist slowly spinning around in what appear to be deliberate attempts to disorient himself. Although the film offers no explanation for this penchant, the picture of the pianist whirling like a child playing games with himself is an apt metaphor for his revolutionary piano style. As the abundant musical soundtrack illustrates, his spare, knotty pianism, with its restless stop-start rhythms and percussive insistence, maintained a perspective on life and art that was defiantly off-center, obsessively exploratory and deeply personal.
The core of the 90-minute movie, is taken from 14 hours of black-and-white film shot in the late 1960’s by Michael and Christian Blackwood for a cinema verite television special about Monk. Broadcast only once, in West Germany, the program was never shown again. The film resurfaced in 1981 when Mr. Blackwood and Bruce Ricker, the co-producers of ”Straight, No Chaser,” teamed up with Miss Zwerin.
Augmenting the original film are more recent interviews with Thelonious Monk Jr.; the tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse; Monk’s longtime manager Harry Colomby; his European road manager Bob Jones, and his friend the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. From them we learn that Monk remained an enigma even to those closest to him. Thorny and taciturn, with occasional flashes of very dry humor, he was obviously conscious of his mystique and played off of it. But he was also acutely sensitive and moody and perhaps a manic-depressive. Illness eventually made it impossible for him to perform, and he gave his last public performance in 1976, six years before his death. At the time ”Straight, No Chaser” began to be compiled, he was too ill to be interviewed for the film.
The film’s late-60’s portions, which document a European tour and also catch Monk playing in clubs and in recording sessions, are some of the most valuable jazz sequences ever shot. Closeups of Monk’s hands on the keyboard reveal a technique that was unusually tense, spiky and aggressive. Other scenes show him explaining his compositions and chord structures, giving instructions in terse, barely intelligible growls that even his fellow musicians found difficult to interpret.
The Monk music that courses through the film is extraordinary in its range of feeling. A tumultuous performance of his most famous composition, ” ‘Round Midnight,” suggests a kind of jazz-musical Cubism, while pop songs like ”I Should Care” are rendered with a biting poignancy.
The film reminds us again and again that Monk was as important a jazz composer as he was a pianist. Pieces like ”Rhythm-A-Ning,” ”Blue Monk” ”Ugly Beauty,” ”Crepuscule With Nellie,” ”Epistrophy” and ”Misterioso” were much more than extended songs. They defined a dense, be-bop-flavored jazz impressionism whose influence and power have only recently begun to be fully recognized.