Biographical documentaries, even when they are about people I care about, can oftentimes drive me crazy. “Is this really worth the time and effort to make a movie? Wouldn't I learn the same information from a well-sourced Wikipedia entry? And a thousand times more from a heavily researched article in The New Yorker?” These are my thoughts as more talking heads blab about how great somebody was. We're at a point where anybody who ever did anything important is going to get a film made about them. And they're starting to all look the same.
Shirley Clarke's 1985 film Ornette: Made in America, getting a revival run from IFC before a DVD release from Milestone Films, differentiates itself in two specific ways. First, it gets under the skin of musician and composer Ornette Coleman, generating a piece of work that harmonizes stylistically with its subject. Clarke cuts her film into a ragged, impressionistic and just-a-little-bit annoying work of art that's a lot like listening to Coleman's music.
Then there's the unintentional benefit of watching this movie today. Ornette: Made in America was meant as a document on a specific time (mainly Fort Worth, Texas 1983) and the thirty year gap offers up a preserved piece of modern art. The documentary itself is its own document, a rare look at a style of film art that video and YouTube have made extinct.
Some background: who the hell is Ornette Coleman?
He emerges on the jazz scene at the end of the bebop era, just as hard bop and cool jazz are taking over. He is part of the “Class of '59” but even in a group of nonconformists and outsiders, he's the bad boy of the bunch.
1959 is quite possibly the most resonant year in jazz. Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck's Time Out, Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um, Duke Ellington's soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder and John Coltrane's Giant Steps are all released. Even if you don't think you know this music, trust me, you've heard it in movies, in samples, in car commercials. (Less famous, but just as good: Horace Silver's Blowin' The Blues Away and Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster, but I can go on all day if you let me.)
In '59 a strange dude from Fort Worth with one negligible LP recording under his belt forms a quartet and emerges with twin albums that are either next-level brilliant or an under-rehearsed mess, depending who you ask. They are Tomorrow is the Question! and The Shape of Jazz to Come.
The first seems at first to be straight-ahead, small combo jazz, but there are a few odd things happening. First, no piano. Sax, trumpet, bass and drums only. (Usually, in a quartet, one chooses sax or trumpet as the lead instrument, or you go with a quintet. To drop piano would be like a hockey team saying, eh, we don't need a goalie.)
Even the most experimental jazz at this point would establish a tune and then after an “opening statement” would dive into improvisation. This is still done here, but the lines are oddly syncopated and perhaps even a bit vexing. Here is, in my opinion, the most audience-friendly track from Tomorrow is the Question!, “Turnaround”:
It's basically a bump and grind number (you can practically see the smoky bar,) but it doesn't go out of its way to be tuneful, and there's a lot of space for solos.
The Shape of Jazz to Come is even edgier. Coleman's saxophone style becomes more abrasive. It squeaks, it howls, it colors outside the lines. It stays with him for the rest of his career, is unmistakable and it is, at times, about as welcome as nails across a chalkboard.
Coleman's most famous composition emerges, a modern art version of a New Orleans funeral dirge, called “Lonely Woman.”
If “Lonely Woman” didn't do it for you the first time, try it a few more times. Play it in the background, let the melody (there is one) seep into you and see if it takes. It's actually one of the saddest, most beautiful things ever recorded.
But you won't be alone if you just shrug and say it opens like a rusty music box, then becomes a bunch of guys just blowing randomly into instruments. (You'd be wrong, but you wouldn't be alone.)
The third act of 1959 for Ornette Coleman was his stint at the Five Spot in New York's East Village. (Don't look for it now, it's where some of the Cooper Union dorms are at the northern tip of Bowery.) Coleman and his quartet (Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums) were booked for a two week engagement. It became THE zeitgeist hipster thing of the time and was extended to ten weeks.
Why? Because a new artform was spontaneously generated: Free Jazz. These miscegenated cats got up there and just basically went apeshit, making abstract expressionistic forms. This had really never been done before, at least not in public. It had its detractors. Miles Davis, hardly a buttoned-up Ed Sullivan-esque showman, said Coleman was “all screwed up inside.” Max Roach (drummer for Charlie Parker – again, not quite Mr. Establishment) allegedly punched him in the mouth for, I suppose, denigrating the scene.
But other people loved it. To hear Charlie Haden tell it, one night he was in the groove on his bass with his eyes closed. He felt a presence, opened his eyes and, on his knees in front of him, with his ear pressed against his instrument, was the Caliph of High Culture, Leonard Bernstein. The conductor of the New York Philharmonic gave this group his thumbs up and the “my kid can paint that” argument has never fully recovered.
(Of note: Coleman's stint at the Five Spot is given a sizable chapter in Thomas Pynchon's extremely funny and mindbending book V.. The name is changed to McClintic Sphere, a nod to Thelonius Sphere Monk, who also had a legendary run at the Five Spot when he was blacklisted from playing at other clubs, but the characterization is all about Ornette. Don't let the impenetrable nature of Gravity's Rainbow deter you from V., it's a hoot.)
The following year Ornette Coleman tested everyone's mettle and released Free Jazz. The word “Free” is meant as a verb. It was thirty-seven minutes of two quartets blasting away at one another in stereo. A Jackson Pollock painting was on the cover.
Wild, experimental and dissonant improvisation had existed in jazz before (Cecil Taylor's Looking Ahead was released in 1958) but the sheer chutzpah of an album of two individual quartets raging for one long song with a drip painting jacket design is a perfect bit of showmanship. How much can you handle?
52 years later and still challenging. Needless to say, this was music that was widely discussed, and branded Ornette Coleman as either a genius, a shyster or an enfant terrible. Most thumbnail histories of jazz barely make mention of Ornette after this point.
And that's why Shirley Clarke's Ornette: Made in America hit me like a cricket bat to the back of the head. NOTHING of what I just wrote is shown or discussed at all in the film! It either assumes that you know the “famous” story of Ornette (possible, I suppose) or simply doesn't care.
The thing is, Ornette never stopped innovating. (Still! He's not dead yet. Nor is Charlie Haden, the bassist whose career skyrocketed on his own, making all kinds of music from space ambient to bluegrass and is also Jack Black's father-in-law.) In the 1970s he recorded some lengthy “third stream” symphonic work, mixing jazz combo and orchestras and he later formed a group called Prime Time that made very edgy fusion that almost sounds like hard King Crimson-esque prog.
Ornette: Made in America is a remarkable snapshot of mid-80s Coleman, neck-deep in specific projects, but also looking back (and forward) from that specific point in time.
Its framework is the 1988 opening of the Caravan of Dreams arts facility in Fort Worth, which hosted the live debut of Coleman's “Skies of America” symphony, which is basically playing in background throughout the entire film. It dips into his childhood and history, but in such impressionistic ways that it only works to complement the actions of the present. It is such an oddly. . .specific moment. What if, a thousand years ago, all that's left of Ornette Coleman is this film? It would be like describing Steven Spielberg as the great filmmaker behind Munich.
But it makes perfect sense because it is the wholly original Shirley Clarke directing. A wealthy daughter of Jewish industrialists, Clarke began her career as a dancer. In the mid-1950s she started making abstract art films. Dig:
At around the time Ornette was creating Free Jazz she made the legendary underground feature The Connection, a documentary-style independent scorcher about heroin addicted jazz musicians. She followed up with The Cool World about black street gangs in Harlem starring non-professional actors. She then switched to documentary and made Portrait of Jason, a feature-length one-on-one rap session with a black gay prostitute that is simply. . . amazing. Here's a 5 minute clip that makes me want to take a time machine back to the mid-1960s more than anything else in the world.
Ornette: Made in America, Clarke's final film, may be about Coleman's symphony, but it is HER symphony. After a prologue in which the mayor of Fort Worth gives Coleman the key to the city (a copy of one that has actually been in space!) the orchestra tunes up and the collage begins.
A key member of the band Prime Time is drummer Deonardo Coleman, Ornette's son. He shows him the house where he grew up (inches from a noisy train track) and, amidst flashes of dramatized childhood memories to the swells of “Skies of America,” Ornette relives his life in synaptic spurts.
Some guests along the way: William S. Burroughs, Robert Palmer (the writer), the voice of Buckminster Fuller and the wealthy white patrons of Fort Worth, itching to throw money at this EPCOT Center-ish arts facility. (Which has since closed.)
What quickly becomes fascinating is that Ornette himself is hardly a wild man, or even all that photogenic. He is kinda small, dresses conservatively, has a receding hairline and a lisp. When he talks, though, it's like trying to read the I-Ching backwards. Most of what he says is incoherent babble (there's a reason he's a musician, not a writer) but the way Clarke shoots it and cuts to impressionistic images as the the symphony plays foreboding arpeggios or Prime Time sizzles a dark groove, it quickly becomes poignant.
There's a large section about Ornette's love of dome architecture. In discussing his time as a Buckminster Fuller groupie, attending many of his lectures, Ornette quietly states, “I thought I was going to be an architect, then I thought I was going to be a brain specialist. I realized I didn't have enough money so I thought I would pursue my career imitating music.” Woah. Imitating music? What does that mean? Did he just prove Miles Davis and the other critics right? Is he really just squeaking into a saxophone? Are his compositions just haphazard notes that people will themselves to like?
No. Of course not. Because as the “Skies of America” symphony continues as background it proves itself effective at creating mood. And right now the mood is intentional confusion. As Ornette continues to speak, there are cuts that will give you an epileptic seizure and you start to think that maybe he used that odd turn of phrase just because his native tongue is the language of odd.
Later in the film he discusses how he felt his sex drive was taking away from his urgency in creating music. He even consulted a doctor to get castrated. He was talked out of it, but still seems to have an anger toward his baser instincts. This section of interviews is in New York, where Ornette has bought a giant block-sized abandoned school on Rivington Street with the intention to “do something with it.” Before he can, though, he is attacked by junkies with hammers and horribly beaten on more than one occasion. (Talk about a time capsule document, this area is now a place in which rich kids drink imported Belgian ale.)
By the time of the filming, Ornette is an established “genius.” He is asked by NASA to create some work to coincide with the new shuttle program. It involves some of the most horrendous video of this mild-looking man floating through space on a poorly rendered rocket. Even for 1985 it is horrible. Is it intentional? I don't know. I'm led to believe it is somehow important because once again the music is swelling and now the colors of the film are changing in a real hypnotic way.
The film ends with every swell in Fort Worth at a cocktail reception congratulating Coleman on a fabulous opening as they munch hors d'oeuvres and sip wine. It's insane. And the only reasonable way to conclude this baffling nugget of cultural history.
Ornette: Made in America is a look at a groundbreaking artist by a groundbreaking artist. Put it on the same shelf as Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy For The Devil. You know that shelf. The shelf where you put movies you are so fascinated with you watch them over and over even if you don't know if you like them or not.