[box cover]

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser

Warner Home Video

Starring Thelonious Monk

Directed by by Charlotte Zwerin
(generously incorporating 1968 footage by
Michael and Christian Blackwood)

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

I. The 'Straight No Chaser' DVD 'Bullshit' Moment ...

... can be found on one of the disc's only supplements, its theatrical trailer. I quote the (white) narrator as he speaks over a shifting montage of stills:

"Thelonious Sphere Monk: With a name like that, he had to be different.... The dark side of genius showed up in Monk the man. Onstage and off, his eccentric behavior was as far-out as his music. Fortunately for us, the music won."

Smarmy, clichéd, and condescending! Maestro!

Anyway, here's my beef: Given that Monk's mental illness forced him to retire from music in 1972 — and that he died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage a decade later at the premature age of 64 — I'd say that as far as Monk was concerned, "far-out" brain wiring pretty much kicked "the music" 's ass, didn't it?

I cite this relatively minor bullshit moment (it's only the trailer, after all) because it's so at odds with Charlotte Zwerin's approach to Monk in Straight No Chaser — her acclaimed 1988 documentary, finally making its way to DVD on the coattails of Ken Burns' Jazz juggernaut.

Zwerin — building her film around black-and-white European-tour footage shot in 1968 by Michael and Christian Blackwood — pretty overtly links Monk's music (and piano-playing) to his illness. In fact, I'd argue that Zwerin (a co-director on Gimme Shelter) sort of 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 superb footage 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.

II. A Brief Consumer Warning for recent Jazz converts

This documentary — unlike the aforementioned Jazz juggernaut — really seems made for hard-core Monk aficionados and in-depth lovers of the craft. There are lengthy performance excerpts, but they aren't spoon-fed to you with edifying deconstructions by Wynton Marsalis.

More important (and more annoyingly, at least to this jazz novice), Monk's truly important biography — his youthful ascent, his Julliard training, his pioneering work in "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:

  1. Anecdotes about Monk's mental illness;
  2. Shots of Monk's dangerous, wildly erratic performance on the '68 tour, including multiple scenes of Monk's family and sidemen on apparent eggshells;
  3. Still more shots of Monk mumbling nearly incomprehensibly and spinning in a freakish trance state in public places;
  4. And tales of his harried wife and his open affair with a white mistress. (The two ladies sit side-by-side at his open-casket funeral. The service was filmed for posterity, and it's monumentally odd.)

This is morbid, train-wreck stuff — and it isn't what the casual jazz aficionado might be expecting.

III. More on that morbid train-wreck stuff:

It's beautifully, gradually revealed to the viewer. At first, Monk just seems eccentric and poker-face cool, spinning in trance states onstage and stabbing the piano keys in his off-kilter way — all the while making music loaded with "idiomatic harmonies and off-center rhythms" that sounds like nothing so much as a Charlie-Brown-special soundtrack after several mind-expanding acid tabs. For its first 15 minutes, Straight No Chaser seems to be about feet and elegant hands, with Monk playing in '68 and his sidemen, 20 years later, interpreting the music with a bit more stability.

But the data slowly accumulates. You meet Monk's beautiful, articulate son, who only refers to his dad as "Thelonious." Hm. Then you start noticing that everyone around the maestro in '68 is a little harried — and that everyone remembering him in 1980s interviews has a story about being harried. Then you notice that Monk never, ever seems to connect to anyone around him. And that his wife dresses him. By mid-film — no doubt as a conscious parallel to real-life events — 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. The viewer also feels just a bit of outrage (well, I did) that a man's who's so obviously ill is being coddled by so many, genius or no.

Is that brazen manipulation on the part of the filmmakers? You bet it is. Is it also reductive and sort of lurid? I'm not sure. I do think Zwerin goes too far when she shows Monk alarming passersby while doing one of his trance-spins at an airport — not because she shows it, but because she layers in some wild, crashing music played by Monk's jazz octet over the soundtrack. The moment's riveting, to be sure, but it rings false on a lot of levels. For one thing, the crazy-jazz/crazy-man juxtaposition is the stuff of tacky B-movies; for another thing, the juxtaposition implies that Monk wouldn't have made innovative music if he weren't mad as a hatter. Is the causal relationship between mental illness and "thinking outside the box" really that simple?

IV. Parenthetically: One bit of dialogue I'm all but certain Benicio del Toro ripped off for his Fenster character in The Usual Suspects:

There's this one moment in 1968 where Monk just tosses off the phrase, "You'll flip — I mean, flip for real." (Monk's mumbly voice even resembles Fenster's, to a degree.)

V. Conclusion.

The music's great. The history's neglected. The carnage is riveting.

— Alexandra DuPont

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