“You can’t describe music with words,” the great Sonny Rollins observes in John Scheinfeld's survey-course-brisk docu-dip into the art and life of John Coltrane. As if seeking to prove Rollins right, Scheinfeld's interviewees hold themselves to generalities: “His sound is stunning,” observes appreciator-in-chief Bill Clinton, who adds, unilluminatingly, that it “ranges through the different emotions that people have in a way that very few people can do.” Carlos Santana tells us that he burns incense and plays A Love Supreme to cleanse the spirits out of hotel rooms. Common marvels that Coltrane told “stories” through his music “without even words” and points out that we all have our ups and downs.
It’s 44 minutes into the film before someone (Ravi Coltrane, the musician’s musician son) discusses the tone of Coltrane’s saxophone; Wayne Shorter, a sax titan himself, then links Coltrane’s wailing to the pulpit performances of the preacher father who died when Coltrane was 12. It’s hard not to wish, as Scheinfeld's restless film hustles along to touch its next base, that we could just sit and listen to more from Shorter, who actually has insight to share. Lord knows the movie won’t make time to let us hear some John Coltrane.
This is another of those jazz docs that consistently layers the music beneath the commentary of its talking heads, only occasionally letting anything but the opening theme of a piece play without Cornel West or Wynton Marsalis telling us that, yes, the music we’re not quite hearing is important. Kind of Blue’s “just got a great feel,” says Doors drummer John Densmore, an opinion nobody would gainsay but which also could be made more potent by letting more than five seconds of Kind of Blue play uninterrupted — though I can’t imagine anyone watching this film needs to be told that.
Scheinfeld occasionally breaks from this Wiki-dump mode. Once, miraculously, he lets a Coltrane solo unspool for more than a minute and a half, a TV performance of “So What” with Miles Davis' first great quintet; finally the Coltrane-curious will get a sense of the man’s art from the art itself. (Why it’s a Davis hit we soak in rather than a later, fully mature performance from Coltrane’s classic quintet remains a mystery.) Later, we see generous excerpts from home movies of Coltrane and his second wife, pianist-harpist-composer Alice Coltrane, and their children — at last, something substantial in this film you couldn’t get from LPs, liner notes and YouTube. A sequence illustrating how Coltrane composed “Alabama” with the cadences of Martin Luther King Jr. in mind almost moves as much as actually hearing him perform “Alabama.”
Finally, Scheinfeld treats Coltrane’s final tour, a 16-gig dash through Japan, in comparatively lavish detail, letting fans who discovered him there speak at length about the music, about Coltrane’s deep interest in the deaths at Nagasaki, about his impassioned performance of “Peace on Earth” after visiting the site. Other than some scraps of that performance, Coltrane’s searching, challenging post–A Love Supreme output gets just a few minutes of screentime, politely dismissed by West as music you have to concentrate on but probably still won’t get.
The filmmakers seem not to have considered that they could, with excerpts and expert opinion, guide viewers into the squall of Ascension or Meditations, just as they don’t seem to think they owe it to us to articulate what Trane picked up from his stints working with Davis or Thelonious Monk. West’s musing on the latter — “That level of genius taking time to nurture your genius!” — is as deep into technique as Chasing Trane gets.
Throughout the film, Coltrane’s friend and occasional bandmate Benny Golson tosses in the kind of quick, arresting, personal stories that could give life to a project like this — here’s a case where the DVD extras might prove much more fascinating than the film itself. Coltrane biographers Ashley Kahn and Lewis Porter lay out what context they can; surviving children and stepchildren offer too-brief testimony to what the man was actually like; and Denzel Washington occasionally speaks the words of Coltrane himself. But the whole is a blur, a Microsoft Encarta entry run blandly amok. The old photos and newly commissioned Coltrane art would make a fine coffee-table book it might be edifying to page through while playing some Coltrane records.