Review: Chasing Trane

Brian Morton suggests the most revisionist element in Spencer Proffer’s new John Coltrane documentary is the idea of Trane as country star

They got Denzel to do Coltrane’s voice. They got Sonny Rollins, looking like a Red Smurf. They got Bill Clinton, and they got John Densmore of The Doors to tell a story about meet Trane outside the gents and shyly declining to catch his eye.

They also spent a bit on graffiti-style art and on some swirly cosmic dust over an opening montage of routine hagiography – “artistic genius and spiritual giant”, “you hear four notes and you know it’s John Coltrane” (thanks, Mr President), “he could get in his spaceship and it would take him anywhere he wanted to go”, “like talking about Beethoven, Shakespeare” – that doesn’t hold any promise that this is going to be a revisionist account.

It gets better, mostly because Proffer starts to allow the music to carry the message, by which time, though, you’re thinking it might just be better to fish out the box sets and have a session of your own. There are some touching things from Ravi Coltrane and stepdaughter Michelle, and the interesting suggestion that music may have been a response to loss, a “life preserver” when the young Coltrane lost the senior male members of his family in quick succession. It’s a fascinating thought, set out briefly over the Naima line, but then thrown away in a jump cut back into bebop and Denzel telling us how John went north to live with his mother in Philly. Benny Golson tells how word went round the projects that there was a new kid who sounded like Johnny Hodges; Golson says to bring him round and opens the door to a “country bumpkin,” which is a useful perception when projected forward to the Trane who loved My Favorite Things, Chim Chim Cheree and The Inch Worm and never seemed quite fully at ease among the Village intellectuals and campus hipsters who sanctified him. Maybe that’s the closest Chasing Trane gets to revisionism: Trane as country star.

Visually, it’s too busy, with lots of false 3D effects on stock photos, endless panning and zooming on relatively familiar images. Less familiar and nicely handled are archive photos of Trane and Alice at the Nagasaki memorial, when he was studying flute in order to capture the sound of that city and its immolation. Oddly enough, though, the two things in the film that stand out and stick most strongly in the mind are a photo of Coltrane around the age of eight or nine, gazing plainly and rather maturely at the camera while schoolmates mug around him, and the testimony of a present-day saxophone star, Kamasi Washington, who says that listening to Coltrane is like looking at the sun, “the brightest light you can hear.” That’s when the director in me shouted “Cut” and “Wrap”.

Absolute newcomers may well enjoy Proffer’s movie, though they’ll be frustrated that none of the tunes are identified onscreen. Older hands will recognise any of them from Clinton’s four notes, but maybe feel that one played out at length might be more satisfying than the dim sum approach. A nice film about a sweet guy and major artist, but it buries its most interesting perceptions behind too much directorial flim-flam.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary is available on DVD.

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