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Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

chasing-trane-revChasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary  (2017)    Abramorama/Documentary    RT: 99 minutes    No MPAA rating (thematic elements)    Director: John Scheinfeld    Screenplay:   John Scheinfeld    Cinematography: Stan Taylor    Release date: June 23, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Denzel Washington, Common, Bill Clinton, Carlos Santana, John Densmore, Cornel West, Wynton Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins.


 Biopics of celebrated jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Charlie Parker typically depict their subjects as tortured artists plagued by personal demons- e.g. drug addiction, mental illness and violent tempers. The documentary Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary is, for the most part, a celebration of the music. John Coltrane (1926-67) is more than a mere jazz musician; he’s an icon whose music still blows people away. He was a man ahead of his time, one who kept taking it to the next level until he reached a point higher than most people’s understanding of music. It would be both fair and accurate to say he redefined the genre. And all by the age of 40 when he succumbed to liver cancer.

 chasing traneI’m not an expert on jazz but I like much of what I’ve heard. I recently started listening to a jazz station on AccuRadio (on the Internet) that plays a fair amount of Coltrane. I like most of what I heard but I must confess to not being overly fond of his later free-form style of jazz. The one constant is that when he plays the saxophone, it’s transcendent. He does things with the instrument that nobody thought possible and very few (if any) can replicate. I always wondered why nobody ever attempted a biopic of Coltrane and now I know why. Making a film depicting his life would be a daunting task and perhaps it’s best to let the facts speak for themselves. Hence, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary.

  Instead of starting at the beginning, director John Scheinfeld begins en media res in 1957 when Coltrane was a member of Miles Davis’ quintet. He was riding high in both senses of the word when Davis fired him for being unreliable, a side effect of his drug abuse. Then we get the origin story. He grew up in the Jim Crow-era South before moving to Philadelphia as a teen with his mother. That’s where he started learning to play the sax and that’s when a star was born. Scheinfeld takes us through Coltrane’s career and his different periods; one interviewee favorably compares him to Picasso. We learn of his two marriages, only the second of which produced children. We hear that he kicked drugs on his own after realizing they adversely affect his music.

 One of the most fascinating passages is his 1966 trip to Nagasaki where he paid tribute to all those killed in the 1945 bombing. He was a deeply spiritual man whose album A Love Supreme, regarded by many as his best, is a testament to God. As an adult, he had a profound interest in the different religions of the world. It was from these that he drew inspiration for some of his greatest work.

 We hear from a lot of people, all of whom have nothing but nice things to say Coltrane and his music. We hear from his children, fellow musicians (including McCoy Tyner, the last surviving member of Coltrane’s quintet) and even former President Bill Clinton, a known jazz aficionado and sax player. Carlos Santana says that Coltrane’s sound “rearranges molecular structure”. Others weighing in on Coltrane include Cornel West, Wynton Marsalis, John Densmore, Common and Sonny Collins. Actor Denzel Washington reads Coltrane’s words; it’s a perfect match. In addition to all the high praise, we get a heaping helping of Coltrane’s music Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary which plays throughout the entire movie. It’s well put-together and very interesting. I like how Scheinfeld uses old photos, archival footage and album covers to help drive the narrative while adding context. He previously directed documentaries about Bing Crosby and Harry Nilsson, both challenging subjects. He’s clearly up to the task of telling Coltrane’s story in a manner befitting the larger-than-life subject. It sputters a bit here and there, but it’s mostly good. Fans of Coltrane and jazz will love it. 

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