'Milford Graves: Full Mantis': Film Review

A small treasure for avant-garde fans.
7/13/2018

Jake Meginsky's doc marinates in the philosophies of the free-jazz percussionist.

Less a definitive portrait than a rare opportunity to hang out with one of jazz's most intriguing living personalities, Jake Meginsky's Milford Graves: Full Mantis may look to some viewers like a case study in eccentricity. Could this drummer, a Guggenheim fellow who helped define percussion's role in free jazz, really also be an expert in martial arts, acupuncture and cardiac health? Whether a viewer is equipped to evaluate those side skills or not, Full Mantis gives fans the kind of intimate access more conventional docs often don't manage. Even for viewers who've never heard of the septuagenarian, it's an oddball delight.

As is often the case with musicians who've followed their muses beyond the realm of sound-making, Graves must contend with listeners who grow skeptical as soon as they stop understanding what he's talking about. And some of the archival material offered by Meginsky and his co-editor Neil Young (not to be confused with either the rock star or the Hollywood Reporter film critic) may encourage that skepticism: We see a young Graves, clad in traditional martial-arts garb, crouching and jabbing by himself in a bamboo grove; as he loses his balance or transitions into a seemingly graceless stance, we may doubt the story his voiceover tells about how he acquired skills traditional masters wouldn't teach a Westerner. (When humans wouldn't teach him about a "mantis pose," he turned to direct observation of the insect.)

But be careful what you doubt. Another of Graves' interests is the study of the human heart, how the peculiarities of one organ's rhythm are indicative of an individual's health and how music might help the patient heal. The film feels no need to convince us Graves isn't deluded, but anyone curious enough to do a bit of research will find accredited Western-medicine physicians who take him seriously. Whether one wants to go to him for treatment or not, it's fascinating to see the homemade array of equipment Graves has in the basement of his Queens home, where he can monitor a person's heartbeat electronically, analyze its contractions and use what appear to be custom-designed computer programs to translate those beats into electronic music.

This not-so-mad scientist's lair is in a house not far from the public-housing complex where the musician grew up. His grandparents used to live here, and when he took it over he began turning it into a mosaic-covered piece of outsider art. His yard is a dense garden, and Graves will speak at length about how these plants digest "cosmic energy" and emit sounds humans only register subconsciously. A plant's dark purple leaves are as fascinating to him as the vibrating membrane of a drum head, and he understands it all through his own polymath's blend of African, Asian and Western thought. (Graves has no patience for those who would be gatekeepers of one group's knowledge — "anybody that's very protective, culturally, ethnic-wise, of what they do.")

Understandably, Meginsky chooses to spend as much time as he can just listening to his subject speak. He interviews no one else — not family members or fellow musicians — and offers nearly nothing of straight biography. (One exception is an entertaining story Graves tells about how he got out of the legal troubles resulting from a 1969 attack on his son.) He does include enough performance footage (old and new) to satisfy viewers whose interest is mainly musical, but in general, Milford Graves: Full Mantis is a hangout whose visuals seek to replicate its subject's boundless curiosity. Those who've been inspired lately (be it by Black Panther or Janelle Monae) to investigate Afrofuturism should put Graves on their study list alongside Sun Ra and Octavia E. Butler: This is one musician whose antennae are more sensitive to the universe's signals than our own.

Distributor: Cinema Guild
Director-producer: Jake Meginsky
Director of photography: Neil Young
Editors: Jake Meginsky, Neil Young
Composer: Milford Graves

91 minutes