'Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A rich account of a jazz giant's life.

Director John Scheinfeld's doc is a comprehensive, engrossing and, it’s tempting to say, worshipful account of the life of the music titan.

A music titan gets his cinematic due in Chasing Trane, a comprehensive, engrossing and, it’s tempting to say, worshipful account of the life of John Coltrane, the alto sax player and composer most aficionados would agree deserves a spot on the jazz equivalent of Mount Rushmore. Smartly shaped and vigorously told by prolific documentarian John Scheinfeld (Who Is Harry Nilsson, The U.S. vs. John Lennon), the film bulges with insights offered by everyone from family members and close collaborators to the likes of Cornel West and Bill Clinton. The incessant rush of the innovator’s music should spike the interest of younger viewers insufficiently exposed to the man’s short career, pointing to an extensive life in all markets, domestic and international, wherever interest in great jazz still flourishes.

Although Coltrane died very young, at 40, in 1967 of liver cancer, his life nonetheless described a significant exploratory arc driven by an accelerating need to go ever-further to the outer reaches of musical expression. “He kind of did everything Picasso did, in about 50 years less time,” the sax-playing former president observes, and the film offer sufficient samples from Coltrane's different phases to back up the statement.

After establishing the man’s importance via clips of him playing in Miles Davis’ seminal quintet in 1957, a period marked by a destructive excess of booze and heroin, Scheinfeld does the best he can with minimal material to document Coltrane’s impoverished early years in North Carolina and, by age 7, Philadelphia. He served in the Navy during WWII, met Charlie Parker, played all the time and hit the big leagues when he was invited to join Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Eventually, Coltrane ran afoul of Dizzy’s strict no-drugs policy, eventually saving himself by holing up alone and enduring a painful withdrawal by going cold turkey.

When he came out the other end, he obviously didn’t know he only had a decade left to do his life’s work, but even if he had known he couldn’t have been more prolific. He played with Thelonius Monk’s band, then rejoined Davis on the epochal Kind of Blue in 1959. Forming his own quartet the following year, he had enormous successes with the aptly named Giant Steps and the mainstream hit "My Favorite Things," and restlessly moved through various phases, notably what was called “free jazz” and then a spiritual period. He released at least 60 LPs in his lifetime.

Along with packing in as much music as possible, Scheinfeld has gone to great lengths to assemble a stellar cast of witnesses and commentators, who not only offer valuable insights into the subject’s life and work, but also provide solid context concerning historical, racial and cultural currents. The self-appointed star of this realm is Cornel West, whose showboating, over-the-top oratorical style provokes laughs as well as insights.

As time went by, another observer stresses, Coltrane was preoccupied with “seeking of universal truth”; in fellow sax man Wayne Shorter’s view, his colleague was continually outgrowing what he had just done in his persistent exploration of a “spiritual consciousness.” Or, as Carlos Santana eloquently and precisely puts it here, “John Coltrane rearranges jazz’s nuclear structure.”

The abundance of choice performance footage here provides strong evidence for even the greatest claims made by the commentators, while Denzel Washington gets in a few words edgewise as he reads some of the subject’s own writings. The filmmaker has cast his net far and wide to obtain performance and background footage, with evocative and satisfying results.

Venues: Telluride, Toronto film festivals
Production companies: Meteor 17, Crew Neck Production
With: Antonia Andrews, Bill Clinton, Michelle Coltrane, Oran Coltrane, Ravi Coltrane, Common, John Densmore, Ysuhiro Fujioka, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Ashley Kahn, Wynton Marsalis, Lewis Porter, Ben Ratliff, Sonny Rollins, Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Kamasi Washington, Cornel West, Reggie Workman, Denzel Washington (reader of John Coltrane’s words)
Director-writer: John Scheinfeld
Producers: Scott Pascucci, John Beug, Spencer Proffer, Dave Harding
Director of photography: Stan Taylor
Editor: Peter S. Lynch II

Not rated, 99 minutes