The new documentary Chasing Trane
focuses on the life and work of jazz saxophone visionary John Coltrane. Coltrane is an icon whose name is known by plenty of people who might not have heard his music or who might not even enjoy jazz at all. When you deal with a cultural figure of this stature, it becomes an almost impossible task to capture them properly in one feature-length documentary. As such, Chasing Trane can be as frustrating as it is touching and inspiring.
Relying largely on photographs and talking heads, Chasing Trane is as oddly conventional as its restless subject is utterly unique. The film does its due diligence, tracing Coltrane’s early trajectory from a country bumpkin with a love of Charlie Parker to an experienced sideman with a crippling heroin addiction.
The film frames Coltrane’s 1957 stint in Miles Davis’s band as the turning point that would define Coltrane as a musician and as a spiritual being. The junk makes Coltrane unreliable, so Miles fires him. Coltrane goes cold turkey. As President Bill Clinton describes it in the film: “He just decided to do it. And by strength of will and faith, he did.” Breaking free from drugs sets Coltrane free to dedicate his life to the music and to finally utilize it to both attain levels of spiritual fulfillment and to express his tireless quest to go deeper and become more enlightened.
What follows is one of the standout moments in the film: a rare instance where director John Scheinfeld just lets the film stop to hear Coltrane play. Coltrane plays an extended solo during a TV performance of the Miles Davis classic, “So What,” from Kind of Blue. As Miles watches, inscrutable in the background, Coltrane guides the melody wherever his imagination and inspiration see fit to take him. It’s a glimpse of ecstasy, and a clear illustration that the humble Coltrane has not only come into his own as a performer but is ready to become his own composer and bandleader.
From there, the film skips across highlights from the next ten years of Coltrane’s life. He forms his “classic quartet.” He meets and marries his second wife, a supportive and talented pianist named Alice, and they quickly start having kids. He has a career-defining breakthrough with the mystical and transcendent A Love Supreme. He then continues to push the boundaries of his craft into uncharted territory, with wild free-jazz expressions that many listeners (even today) consider harsh, akin to shrieking. And then, roughly a decade after his creative breakthrough sent him rocketing through a kaleidoscope of musical expression, Coltrane was dead at age 40, from liver cancer.
There is no lack of celebrity star power behind Chasing Trane, with Denzel Washington front and center, reading bite-size excerpts of Coltrane’s interviews and liner notes. Other sax players — friends, family, and fans — offer anecdotes and testimony to Coltrane’s greatness; these include the aforementioned President 42, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson, Kamasi Washington, and Ravi Coltrane. Cornel West, Carlos Santana, Common, Wynton Marsalis, and John Densmore of The Doors all throw in their two cents as well, with varying levels of acuity and profundity.
Although the “voice” of Coltrane’s sax is ubiquitous throughout the film, we never hear his actual speaking voice. It’s clearly a choice, but one that sadly keeps Coltrane at a slight remove from the viewer. (Director Scheinfeld’s earlier music documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) had a similar rushed detachment that prevented it from being a total winner.) Viewers do thankfully get to see the man in some rare home movies, in the later stretches of the film, which affords us the rare opportunity to see this stoic, gentle giant actually smile and laugh.
Unexpected moments like these, as well as a generous sequence about Coltrane’s unexpected impact upon Japanese fans during his final tour, give the film needed jolts of energy and personality. In an apparent attempt to be “definitive,” the documentary too frequently flattens out its multi-dimensional subject. But it still offers enough strange turns to make it a worthwhile watch.
Chasing Trane is currently playing in theaters in New York and LA. Go to http://www.coltranefilm.com/screenings/ for current and upcoming shows in select cities.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.