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Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser Review

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★★★★★

A fascinating hybrid of 60s documentary footage and newly recorded interviews and commentary, this tribute to the master jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk has its basis in a German television film made by Christian Blackwood. Blackwood followed on his 1967-68 European tour and the result was over 14 hours of The Legend in performance, backstage and on the road in the best cinema verité tradition.

Edited down to one hour, broadcast once, then forgotten, the footage has here been rearranged and amplified to its present form with Charlotte Zwerin (Gimme Shelter) as director and Clint Eastwood as executive producer. Added are interviews with Monk's colleagues, manager and son, some earlier and later rare footage and photographs, a succinct narration and some stylish reinterpretations of Monk compositions by Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan.

For jazz enthusiasts, the fact that the movie contains so much footage of Monk performing - both on stage and in the studio - will be recommendation enough, but the film never really progresses beyond the level of uncritical tribute. The Monk we see here in the 60s footage is a strange, withdrawn and shambling figure who displays a prodigious command of his medium onstage, but off it he is reduced to repeatedly spinning himself around and around to the bemusement of passers-by. This material is sometimes moving and often very funny, but the new interviews never get beyond the level of obituary praise (Monk died in 1982, six years after his last public performance). Why he stopped performing in 1976 is only touched upon and the precise nature of the serious illness which afflicted him remains an unresolved question throughout.

The film falls into the gap between the manifestly unique qualities of the musician in performance and the near complete mystery of an intensely withdrawn private life. The old footage captures the confidence and style of Monk at the keyboard, but the new material does little but cast a talking-heads gloss over his life story with only praise and devotion on display. This repackaging is really more of a dilution than anything else, with the several interviewees circling delicately around the issue of Monk as a man in much the same way that Monk himself is seen so often to circle on the spot.

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