Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1988)

Thelonious Monk, 1947
This 90-minute documentary about jazz great Thelonious Monk began as a one-hour film for German television in the 1960s by filmmakers Christian and Michael Blackwood who followed Monk on and offstage for six months around New York, Atlanta, and Europe.

Their footage waited 20 years before finding producers, including Clint Eastwood, with budget to expand the film to feature-length. It was released in 1988, after Monk’s death in 1982.

Shooting in black and white, the Blackwoods capture the look and feel of cinema vérité- style documentary, being developed and refined at the time by the likes of Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop, 1966).

Illuminating are the close-ups of Monk’s hands on the keyboard as he plays and the physicality of his performance, revealing a creative vehemence that seems at times at risk of reducing his Steinway to splinters.

We also see him as a composer conveying to his sometimes bewildered band the intricacies of a complex chord progression, while reluctant to give them specific answers to their questions. At moments, in his seemingly playful erratic behavior we see early signs of what may have become the mental illness that brought his career to an end. Watching the film is like opening a time capsule of the bebop era, and the music is wonderful.

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser is currently available for viewing on YouTube.

For more of Tuesday's Overlooked movies, click on over to Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom.

Further reading/viewing:

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Guy Vanderhaeghe, A Good Man