Premiering only weeks after its protagonist, revered jazz trumpeter Wallace Roney, died from “complications with COVID-19,” Nick Capezzera and Sam Osborn’s absorbing documentary Universe is endowed with and ruefully enriched by a mournful topicality.
One of the very first films to be shaped by the tragic shadow of 2020’s global pandemic, this warm tribute to Roney and his craft will be catnip for jazz aficionados worldwide in the months ahead, even if practical necessities will largely confine it to small-screen platforms. Debuting in the online phase of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s program, the picture’s circulation will be boosted via the copious archive-footage presence of Roney’s legendary mentor Miles Davis.
While not himself a household name outside jazz circles, Roney — only 59 when he died in Paterson, New Jersey, on March 31 — became widely regarded as Davis’ No. 1 protege, especially after they performed together at the Montreux Jazz Festival in July 1991, weeks before Davis’ own demise. “It was almost like handing the torch,” one observer recalls, as we watch the two men enjoy what was clearly a buoyant professional relationship onstage.
These images have been decolorized here by the multihyphenate directors/co-editors/cinematographers, the smoother to fit in with Universe‘s moody monochrome look — emulating jazz-photography classics of the Herman Leonard type.
Brought together by their talent and certain similarities of style, Davis and Roney were evidently rather different personalities: Davis the angular, confrontational, dangerous genius; Roney a self-effacing, genial, amiable teddy bear of a man. Every inch a “gentle giant,” Roney hailed from the tough streets of North Philadelphia (here dubbed “the gang town”), emerging from a poverty-stricken, hazard-laden background to become an internationally respected practitioner of his art.
The film touches (also very topically) on the importance of Davis as a crusading, inspirational figure of color whose impact extended very far beyond the coteries of jazz. His uncompromising example showed “what life could be like for a Black man living in America.” His vibrations continue to reverberate, amplified recently by last year’s Stanley Nelson PBS American Masters documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which has enjoyed a healthy festival life followed by nice theatrical exposure in certain territories.
Universe fruitfully foregrounds the Roney-Davis connection via the Wayne Shorter compositions which provide the film with its title: Written for Davis in 1968, these dauntingly complex works were (for reasons left a little mysterious here) never performed during the latter’s own lifetime. In 2013, Roney staged a public tryout using a limited number of musicians; four years later, he finally felt ready for a full-scale performance involving the full orchestra specified in Shorter’s score.
The rehearsals for this 2017 extravaganza at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center provide Universe with the bulk of its material, writer-directors Capezzera and Osborn structuring and punctuating the running time with title cards that count down to the “debut.” We actually get very little of Shorter’s symphonic creation itself, however, the film concluding at the start of the 2017 event. But, despite its title, the picture is really more about the character, life and milieu of Wallace Roney than any particular piece of music. Slightly austere in style, Universe stands as an admiring, intimate portrait — a touching elegy etched in a valedictory frame.
Screenwriters-directors-cinematographers: Nick Capezzera, Sam Osborn
Producers: Esther Dere, Leah Natasha Thomas
Executive producers: Carmelo Anthony, Joe Gebbia
Editors: Nick Capezzera, Sam Osborn, Sara Sowell
Composers: Wallace Roney, Wayne Shorter
Venue: Sheffield Doc/Fest (Rhythm & Rhyme)