'The Case of the Three-Sided Dream': Film Review

Chuck Stewart
Vibrant doc focuses on archival clips to get at the heart of its subject's distinctive art.

Adam Kahan offers a performance-heavy look at eccentric jazz artist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

NEW YORK — Eccentric personalities were hardly rare during jazz's most productive decades — think of cryptic Thelonious Monk or the self-styled spaceman Sun Ra — but few performers made for as diverting a stage presence as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a blind man who would emerge with a half-dozen instruments strapped to his torso and proceed to play two or three of them at the same time. Adam Kahan makes the most of this sight in The Case of the Three-Sided Dream, offering plentiful live footage of the late performer and offering only as much biographical detail as is required to flesh out Kirk's artistic philosophies. Given a subject who's just famous enough to attract attention but sufficiently obscure to give viewers a sense of discovery, the well-assembled doc could sustain a niche theatrical run once it has finished the fest circuit.

We learn next to nothing about the man himself that isn't relevant to his art; the most we get is an explanation of Kirk's blindness, which resulted from a nurse's improper use of eyedrops when he was born. (He would later be fond of inviting bandmates to join him in pitch-black dressing rooms.) But if facts are scarce, personality is abundant: through his own interviews with BBC and American TV hosts and present-day testimony from friends, we meet a man who believed in the truths of his subconscious (dreams were his religion, his wife tells us) and was never shy about sharing opinions onstage.

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Kahan isn't too interested in tracing the path of Kirk's career, but he does address the issue of "gimmickry": As we watch Kirk wedge the mouthpieces of three reed instruments into his mouth at once and play them simultaneously, we understand why some critics dismissed his music as a cheap attention-grab. (The act was made more outrageous by Kirk's employment of ancient circular-breathing technique, which allowed him to produce notes continuously without stopping to breathe.) But once the astonishment wears off, the intent of these chorus-like solos is apparent.

Family members, friends, and old bandmates including trombonist Steve Turre appear in well photographed interviews; charmingly period-appropriate animation by Mans Swanberg accompany some audio-only recordings of Kirk. But unlike so many music docs that prioritize storytelling, this one is generous with the man's art. We see him lead a band including Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp on the Ed Sullivan show, surprising his hosts by playing a Mingus tune instead of the Stevie Wonder cover he had promised; we watch the political statement of "Blacknuss," a song whose piano part employed only the black keys. We watch in 1977, the last year of his life, as he heroically overcomes a 1975 stroke that left one hand paralyzed, using a modified sax to do with a single hand what other players do with two. The persistence is hardly surprising, coming from a man so driven to make music that, before he ever owned a horn, he cut up a garden hose to play like a trumpet.

 

Production company: DobbsVision

Director-Producer: Adam Kahan

Director of photography: Alex Baev

Editors: Adam Kahan, Liv Barratier

Animation and graphics: Mans Swanberg

No rating, 87 minutes

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