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Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser

In Straight No Chaser, director Charlotte Zwerin — building her film around European-tour footage shot in 1968 — links jazz legend Thelonious Monk's music to the mental illness that derailed his career and ultimately killed him. One might even argue that Zwerin (a co-director on "Gimme Shelter") lingers on Monk's mental decline at the expense of his monumental contribution to jazz history. That's a function of building a documentary around the superb '68 footage (by Michael and Christian Blackwood) of an artist in his senescence, of course. And to be fair, Straight No Chaser's well worth watching because it's fascinating, voyeuristic, manipulative, infuriating and sad — in terms of both subject matter and execution. But still. Monk's truly important biography — his youthful ascent, his Julliard training, his pioneering work on "be-bop" with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie et al, the gigs at Minton's, the 1951 drug arrest that kept him out of New York clubs during his creative peak, his most resonant songwriting and pretty much everything else prior to the Blackwood footage — is dispensed of in less than 15 minutes. All the better to make room for anecdotes about Monk's mental illness, shots of his dangerous, wildly erratic performance on the '68 tour, and tales of his harried wife and his open affair with a white mistress. To be sure, this is morbid, train-wreck stuff — not what the casual jazz aficionado might be expecting — but it's beautifully, gradually revealed to the viewer. By mid-film, Monk's illness has taken over Straight No Chaser, to the degree that the viewer watches him play the piano in a state of utter suspense: The music itself sounds like it's about to go off the rails. Warner's DVD release includes cast and crew notes on Monk, Zwerin, co-producer Bruce Ricker, and executive producer Clint Eastwood. Theatrical trailer, snap-case.
—Alexandra DuPont

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