'I Called Him Morgan': Venice Review

An intriguing exposé of a gripping story.

The second feature documentary from Swedish-born director Kasper Collin ('My Name Is Albert Ayler') looks at another jazz luminary who died too soon: Lee Morgan.

From the title of Kasper Collin’s documentary I Called Him Morgan, it’s evident that the film will have to be about at least two people. Morgan refers to Lee Morgan, the jazz trumpet genius who joined the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in 1956, when he was just 18; toured extensively with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; contributed to John Coltrane’s Blue Train; and recorded a staggering 25 albums for Blue Note Records. His common-law wife, Helen Morgan (nee More) is the “I” of the title — she hated the name “Lee” — and helped him out of the gutter and onto the road of recovery and a comeback, after the musician got addicted to cocaine in the early 1960s. She also shot him dead in 1972, when he was just 33.

Their paradoxical and fascinating relationship is at the heart of Collin’s second feature documentary after the well-received My Name Is Albert Ayler from 2006, which also looked at a talented jazz musician who died in his 30s. Though not as masterful as that work, Morgan should nonetheless rake up quite a few festival miles, please niche distributors and (re-)introduce a larger audience to the amazing work of Morgan, one of hard-bop jazz’s true geniuses. The story also is iconic and drama-filled enough to potentially appeal to producers of fiction films.

The growth of Morgan, a Philadelphia native, as a musician is chronicled through standard talking-head interviews with people that worked with him and, frequently, became his friends. They include saxophonist-composers Wayne Shorter, Billy Harper and Bernie Maupin; bass players Larry Ridley and Jymie Merritt; and musicians Paul West and Charly Persip, the latter two also part of Gillespie’s band. These interviews with a who's who of 1950s and 1960s jazz provide insight into Morgan’s career trajectory and offer some interesting tidbits about both his meteoric rise and the extent of his talent. 

In very classical fashion, Collin intercuts the on-camera interviews with stunning black-and-white photos (a lot of them taken by Fran Wollf, who helped run Blue Note) and album artwork from the time. He also makes sure to include enough pieces from Morgan’s repertoire on the soundtrack to give even those unacquainted with his work a sense of what made him so special.

But despite all this material, it’s clear that the director again doesn’t plan to make a traditional music documentary — or at least, not only. For Helen’s side of the story, Collin relies on some of the same interviewees but also on the woman herself, who died in 1996 back in her native North Carolina. She gave one wide-ranging audio interview a month before her death to Larry Reni Thomas, a man who had taught her an evening class (and who’s also featured as an interviewee). Recorded on a simple cassette tape that the film actually cuts to at several points, this invaluable confession of sorts gives Helen’s own side of the story, with Collin initially using the unedited version, surface noise and all.  

Helen’s pre-Morgan biographical details are somewhat incomplete — we hear she got married at 17 (but to whom?) but the film neglects to mentions she was a widow at 19 and only then came to New York — and an interview with her son, who first met her in New York City when he was already 21 because he grew up with his grandparents back home, doesn’t really yield all that much insight.

What does sound fascinating is the bohemian New York lifestyle of Helen, who basically always had something cooking on the stove of her small apartment and who had an arty crowd, which included musicians and/or members of the LGBT community, drop by for food and company. It also is clear from the other interviewees that, after the duo met, they became very fond of one another and that Helen can be credited with getting Morgan’s act together after he’d become homeless and even pawned his shoes to get money for drugs. She basically became his lover and his manager, ironing his shirts but also negotiating with venues where Morgan could perform again.

What finally turned Lee's savior into his downfall has to be read between the lines a little bit, as the two key female players are not given to intellectualizing their actions. It is fascinating, however, to hear the interviewed musicians talk about their reactions to the shooting and how their perceptions of Helen changed.

Besides the gorgeous music and photos, Collin also includes atmospheric and grainy 16mm footage of New York that might look like archive material but was actually shot for the documentary (some of it by Bradford Young, the talented DP who also shot Selma and this year’s Arrival). The material is atmospheric and evocative, though the film’s four credited editors (including the director) do seem a little too much in love with the otherwise gorgeous shots of the Big Apple during a blizzard. They are meant to foreshadow Morgan’s untimely death, which occurred not only during a whiteout but which could possibly have been prevented if the ambulance hadn’t taken over an hour to arrive due to the harsh weather conditions.  

Production companies: Kasper Collin Produktion, SVT, Film Vast, NRK, Passion Pictures, Sphinx Productions
Writer-director-producer: Kasper Collin
Executive producers: Ron Mann, Nicole Stott, Dan Braun
Directors of photography: Bradford Young, Erik Vallsten
Editors: Hanna Lejongqvist, Eva Hillstrom, Dino Jonsater, Kasper Collin 
Sales: Submarine Entertainment

Not rated, 92 minutes