February Films: Straight No Chaser

The third movie of February was the documentary Straight No Chaser, a sorta-biopic about the jazz pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. I didn’t realize, beforehand, that the film was so old – from 1988, just 6 years after Monk’s death. When I learned that, my view of the film changed a bit. On watching it, I thoroughly enjoyed the music (Monk is one of my favorite jazz artists), but thought the “documentary” elements to be rather weak – slices of what were obviously just a few long recordings of Monk in the studio, traveling, or otherwise living. These sections seemed impressionistic at best, and unilluminating at worst.

After learning that the film was finished just a few years after Monk died, though, I realized that it was meant as much to be a vehicle for seeing Monk alive as a way to hear his music – much less to get a sense of his biography, which you can’t very well do. You do get a good sense of Monk’s personal oddity, which was even more impressive and challenging than his musical oddity. Monk was, the film makes clear though interviews and footage, a deeply troubled man who suffered, it appears, from some sort of bipolar disorder, and possibly from Asperger’s or another form of autism. The circular mania of many of his tunes seem to be musical proof of his mental state. It’s a wonder, and yet not, that he produced so much immortal music.

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