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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: July 24, 2017

‘Chasing Trane’ doesn’t fully capture its legendary subject or his sax

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Photo by John Schlitten

Photo by John Schlitten

A documentary about a great artist is rarely as compelling as the subject’s art itself. There’s debate about just who came up with the saying, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (Comedian Martin Mull is the leading candidate.)

But the new documentary about jazz legend John Coltrane, “Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary” (playing at PMA Films this weekend), illustrates the difficulty perfectly. Tracing the late Coltrane’s life and career with the help of the usual roster of impressive talking heads, choice film clips, photos and animation, and wall-to-wall Coltrane music, the film from director John Scheinfeld (a specialist in celebrity documentaries) struggles to find the right notes to make its subject soar as high as his still-stunning music does.

Part of the problem is the same one confronting this review. As last year’s jazz-adjacent Hollywood blockbuster “La La Land” showed, there’s nothing more trying than listening to a white enthusiast explain what jazz really means, so this admiring jazz tourist isn’t going to try. The problem is, “Chasing Trane” tries awfully hard and still can’t get out of its own way.

It’s not like Scheinfeld didn’t assemble the right people to do the job. From jazz legends like Wynton Marsalis, Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner (pianist on some of Coltrane’s most influential records) to musical fans as diverse as Carlos Santana and Common to biographers and music critics to even former President (and lifelong saxophone enthusiast) Bill Clinton and philosopher Dr. Cornel West, the film is packed with eminently qualified experts rhapsodizing about what Coltrane — the man and the artist — means to them.

So why doesn’t “Chasing Trane” sing?

The music is there, although necessarily truncated into an aural collage behind the standard biopic details and pronouncements. When the film pauses to let an especially important milestone in Coltrane’s career play out (like the songs “Alabama,” “Peace on Earth” or his seminal cover of “My Favorite Things”), the power of the music has some room to expand in your mind as it should. But there’s a prosaic nature to the film’s approach to Coltrane’s ups and downs (his failed first marriage, a battle with addiction) that relies on too-familiar biographical tropes. (“At a pivotal point in his life, he’s got to make a decision,” etc.)

Watch the trailer:

Still, perhaps it’s the combination of Coltrane’s compositions (always weaving through the snippets of narration, including that of Denzel Washington, who reads out Coltrane’s own words) and the struggles of the man’s fans to encapsulate just what Coltrane did that manages to tickle around the edges of the truth. Some compare him to Beethoven, to Picasso, even to Einstein. That latter comparison (underscored by the film’s intermittent cosmic visual approximation of the lofty ambitions of Coltrane’s music) comes to make the most sense, oddly, albeit at appropriately jazz-like oblique angles.

The discussion of Coltrane’s composition of the achingly beautiful, heartbroken “Alabama” takes in how he channeled his sorrow over the 1963 Birmingham church bombing by white supremacists (that killed four little black girls) into a song that, as West puts it, was his message to blacks in America “all the way down the road.” Listening to “Alabama” (into which Coltrane reportedly incorporated the cadence of Dr. Martin Luther King’s eulogy to the murdered girls), it’s not inconceivable to follow the conceit of West’s idea that Coltrane’s music reverberates through time and space. Quantum jazz, felt in the present, a message of sorrow and hope from the past.

Photo by Chuck Stewart

Photo by Chuck Stewart

But writing about music as complex and personal as John Coltrane’s is doomed to sound second-rate. And one comes away from “Chasing Trane” with a too-conventional picture of a man (by all accounts here a lovely, truly original man) whose music presents a much fuller, if necessarily incomplete, portrait of an artist whose work changed American music forever. (Clinton, of all people, makes a compelling case for the Picasso-Coltrane comparison, except, as he notes, Coltrane, who died at 40, ran through his artistic evolution in about 50 fewer years.)

One canny choice Scheinfeld makes is to never let John Coltrane speak for himself, other than through his sax. Washington reads his words, narrators fill in gaps, friends and fans share their takes. But, apart from his music, Coltrane is never called on to explain himself, which feels right. Like an acknowledgement that, like Coltrane’s music, you’re either going to get him or you’re not.

“Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary” is showing at PMA Films, Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress St., Friday through Sunday. There’s a 2 p.m. screening each day and a 6:30 p.m. screening on Friday evening. Tickets are $8 or $6 for PMA members and students with ID.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

Nickelodeon Cinemas
Friday: “A Ghost Story.” Casey Affleck plays a recently deceased husband (white sheet and all) who finds his efforts to reconnect with his bereaved wife (Rooney Mara) hampered by the rules of his baffling new existence in this well-reviewed indie film.

Railroad Square Cinema
Friday: “City of Ghosts.” Searing yet inspirational documentary about the RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently), a group of young Syrian activists risking their lives daily to gather intelligence about ISIS in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

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