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The sort of writer who defined what one meant when speaking of an “alt-weekly” newspaper before that once-essential media category was hobbled by homogenizing chains and shrinking ad revenue, Nat Hentoff made his name as one of the finest writers on jazz but eventually became an important commentator on an array of political subjects. David L. Lewis provides an introduction in The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, a sharp-looking and enjoyable doc that celebrates the writer’s legacy but, in its willfully obscure structure, seems a bit too bent on echoing his famous nonconformity. Lewis’ debut should be well liked on the fest circuit, and Hentoff’s reputation (along with his connection to such musical giants as Charles Mingus) should ensure a modest audience on video.
Stories of Hentoff’s Boston youth reveal the origins of his musical proclivities — hearing Artie Shaw‘s “Nightmare” inspired a jazz obsession that had him hosting a radio show while still a teen, then becoming the New York editor of jazz bible Down Beat — and the experiences that might cause him later to identify with minority voices: He recalls with chagrin having denied being Jewish in order to avoid being bullied as a boy.
At Down Beat and elsewhere, Hentoff became one of the most evocative and convincing writers on jazz, establishing its place as America’s great art form. More visibly for listeners who came of age decades later, he penned extensive liner notes for innumerable classic albums that even in the CD era would teach newcomers how to listen to and interact with the music.
Meanwhile, though, he started a column at the Village Voice in which he found that simply having a byline gave him (in the eyes of trusting readers) permission to speak with authority on any subject at all. He began covering politics and social issues, sometimes taking unpopular but principled positions. In the late 70s, for instance, he insisted that the First Amendment gave neo-Nazis the right to march in a town whose population was half Jewish.
Some of his unpopular stances gained traction over the years, but others made him unpopular at the Voice and elsewhere on the left. Former Voice editor Karen Durbin recalls that Hentoff’s “first reaction to AIDS was not good,” though the film isn’t much interested in elaborating. It spends a little more time on his vocal opposition to abortion rights, but not enough to really get inside his reasoning. (Hentoff comes off better on this point in Tony Kaye‘s abortion doc Lake of Fire.)
Lewis and editor Samuel D. Pollard operate by rules few viewers will fathom. A section recounting Hentoff’s early stint at a jazz magazine cuts abruptly to his 1980s coverage of the anti-Apartheid movement; then, suddenly, we’re back in 1957, watching the influential TV performance film The Sound of Jazz.
The film is subtitled “Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff,” which may be intended to deflect complaints about this scattershot structure. But it’s not as if Lewis is short on material or his subject is too enormous to tackle in a film. Having collected plenty of intimate footage with Hentoff (including his home routine with wife Margot), testimony from peers and admirers, and a hefty chunk of jazz, why stop at notes when you could assemble a finished portrait?
Production Company: Wishing Well Productions
Director-Producer: David L. Lewis
Director of photography: Tom Hurwitz
Editor: Samuel D. Pollard
No rating, 87 minutes
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