Ornette: Made in America: Film Review

Ornette Made in America Poster - P 2012

Ornette Made in America Poster - P 2012

Like the jazz great's music, Shirley Clarke's documentary employs kitchen-sink experimentalism that can challenge the casual viewer.

Shirley Clarke's final feature-length film centered on the jazz legend Ornette Coleman gets a loving polish as part of Milestone Films' "Project Shirley."

Free Jazz legend Ornette Coleman gets an appropriately out-there tribute in Shirley Clarke's Ornette: Made in America, a 1984 doc just restored as part of Milestone Films' "Project Shirley." Very much a work of its time, the doc offers unique perspectives for fans of both the saxophonist and the pioneering filmmaker, but is unlikely to attract a broad audience beyond those camps.

A project that Clarke began in the late '60s and evidently would have abandoned if not for the prompting of a Texas arts organization in the '80s, Ornette combines relatively straightforward music-doc fare with experiments in both content and form. The whole thing is built around a 1983 concert in which Coleman's group joined the Fort Worth Symphony in one of Coleman's sprawling, challenging compositions.

Borrowing its structure from this piece, "Skies of America," Clarke offers an impressionistic collage combining various ways of telling this uncategorizable artist's story: two young actors reenact a few of Coleman's memories of growing up in Fort Worth, Texas (these younger Ornettes occasionally share the screen with the real one); family members talk about how much rejection he faced before being hailed as a genius; performance clips with various groups show some of the forms his music has taken; and episodes invoking Buckminster Fuller and William S. Burroughs show how heavily Coleman's musical philosophy was influenced by thinkers in other realms.

Scenes in which Coleman directly addresses that "harmolodic" philosophy, though, will be hard for the uninitiated to follow. Clarke isn't interested in being a stand-in for the square world, and doesn't push him to speak in plain terms. Just the opposite: In scenes employing then-daring, now-dated video effects (and sometimes using simple machine-gun editing to jarring effect), she attempts to echo Coleman's no-rulebook techniques in visual terms.

These experiments may not have aged well, but Milestone's restoration of the film is top-notch. Their long-term project, to bring the work of this unfairly neglected filmmaker back into the public eye, should be celebrated by anyone interested in the history of American independent film.

Production Company: Caravan of Dreams
Director-editor: Shirley Clarke
Producer: Kathelin Hoffman
Director of photography: Ed Lachman
Music: Ornette Coleman
No rating/ rating, 77 minutes