'Bill Frisell: A Portrait': Film Review

Courtesy of Emma Franz
A feel-good treat for Frisell's legion of fans.

One of contemporary music's most influential guitarists gets his due in Emma Franz's doc.

Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell is a player distinctive enough to make fans even among music lovers who think they could happily die without ever hearing another guitar solo. From all indications, he's also that very rare genius who's a lovely guy — a soft-spoken, readily smiling man who is endearing company for the nearly two hours of Emma Franz's Bill Frisell: A Portrait. Less a biography than a hangout film interspersed with well-recorded in-studio performance footage, the documentary will play well in one-off bookings to those of us who've kept Frisell in demand both on stages and on record.

Fans hoping to learn about Frisell's life outside music should look elsewhere. We learn nothing about his childhood here that isn't directly related to music, and his relocations (to New York City in early adulthood, then to Seattle) are similarly framed as driven by musical impulse. We learn that he has a daughter, and briefly, we meet wife Carole D'Inverno, a painter. Other than that, we get to know Frisell by watching him fiddle with guitars and through the eyes of peers. Bonnie Raitt says "he's universally loved," and eclectic music producer Hal Willner backs her up, suggesting that Frisell may be the only person around about whom not one person would have something bad to say.

Sitting in his house and surrounded by so many instruments he's embarrassed to show them all, Frisell radiates aw-shucks charm. He gingerly pulls out guitars that artist friends have made for him, explaining that he's reluctant to play them for fear of scratching them up. He plucks them and wavers, thinking they sound too good to leave in the closet, but of course that has more to do with the player. Peers like Wilco guitarist Nels Cline try to sum up the essence of Frisell's gift — its distinctive "trebly tone" and "natural chorusing" have influenced countless string-benders — but their words aren't necessary once we hear the man in action.

To that end, Franz offers enough live footage to sate most fans, returning often to two disparate settings: a trio session between Frisell, drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr; and a rehearsal where composer/arranger Michael Gibbs is coaxing Frisell-like atmospheres out of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Franz collects clips of many other lineups, naturally, and touches on the most important stages of his musical biography. She spends enjoyable time with the late drummer Paul Motian, whose decades-running trio with Frisell and Joe Lovano remains a fan favorite; we visit the home of cartoonist Jim Woodring, whose hallucinatory art has been an unlikely inspiration for Frisell. (When the artist says that meeting the guitarist for the first time was "like meeting Einstein or Albert Schweitzer," Frisell grins shyly, looks at his shoes, and chuckles.) Guitarists who share Frisell's stature, like Jim Hall and John Abercrombie (both of whom have died since being filmed), give some of the most persuasive testimonials about his gifts.

Franz briefly evokes the Downtown NYC scene that helped cement Frisell's reputation for being versatile while remaining immediately identifiable. But the film is more fond of the expansive, Americana-steeped music he makes today than it is of the aggressive noise of Naked City. Getting older, Frisell reports, has made him more comfortable with "admitting" the music that moves him, even if others might find it corny. On records so numerous that even he can't keep track of them, Frisell finds ways to turn even the most overfamiliar melody into an unexpected pleasure.

Production company: Emma Franz Films
Director-screenwriter-producer-editor: Emma Franz

114 minutes

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