Studio: Meteor 17
Directed by John Scheinfeld
Apr 14, 2017
While one is loath to risk hyperbole, saying that John Coltrane is one of the greats of 20th century music almost feels reductive. In fact, it's likely that no single artist or band — not the Beatles, not Kraftwerk, not Stevie Wonder, not even Coltrane's early employer Miles Davis — has contributed more widely and deeply to the cultural conversation of the recorded-music era. Coltrane's music has profoundly affected, both structurally and spiritually, a massive swath of the musical ferment, from the bigges,t pop stars to the most far-out reaches of the experimental underground.
As such, it's a shame that Chasing Trane largely fails to tell the story of that music. Certainly, John Scheinfeld (The U.S. Vs. John Lennon) succeeds in drawing in the usual pedestrian hordes to pile on the superlatives: Carlos Santana, Wynton Marsalis, even Bill Clinton. Chasing Trane is the first authorized John Coltrane documentary, which means it also has a lot of features it likely wouldn't have otherwise, like interviews with Coltrane's kids, rare photos and video, and the like. Most importantly, it's chockablock with Coltrane's music, using it as a bed for almost the entire run time. That's all very good news.
Little of the film, however, touches on just why Coltrane was great, and it gives criminally short shrift (both by afforded context and relative exclusion) to the soul-shattering, challenging, and engrossing work that Coltrane unleashed in the final third of his career as a leader, after his universally lauded A Love Supreme. In doing so, the film does both the viewer and Coltrane's memory a gross disservice.
Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, and A Love Supreme are, indeed, essential and groundbreaking documents which changed the course of jazz in their time, and all deserve careful inspection and elaboration. However, they are only afforded shallow plaudits here, and the time wasted on said plaudits comes at the expense of serious discussion of works like Ascension, OM, and Interstellar Space, albums whose structural density and plumbing of turbulent emotional depths have informed the most adventurous work of everyone from Flying Lotus to Battle Trance to Thurston Moore. That none of the surviving contributors to Coltrane's later work (Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, et al.) are even interviewed for this film — with stuffed-shirt traditionalist commentators like Marsalis inserted in their place, and with more extensive coverage afforded to Coltrane's continued popularity in Japan(?) — really should have been reason enough to halt the film's production until they had the means to tell the whole story. A seismic musical shift deserves a good deal more than a comic wince from Cornel West and the dismissal of a few random critics.
Chasing Trane gets off to a passable, if unimaginative, start telling John Coltrane's story, but it fails to finish the job with any kind of grace or equanimity. To be fair, any director would be hard put to do justice to such a giant, but Scheinfeld doesn't even get one fingertip to the high bar.
Author rating: 4/10
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