“Here’s how I play,” John Coltrane once explained. “I start from one point and go as far as possible. But, unfortunately, I never lose my way.” Usually, an adverb is the least necessary word in a sentence. Here it’s the most important. Or maybe it’s just that prefix, “un,” that’s crucial. To get truly lost would have been the ultimate transcendence for an artist as other-directed as Coltrane. For anyone else, it would be mortifying.
Coltrane was only 40 when he died. That was 50 years ago — 50 years! — yet his music remains as urgent and transfixing as ever. There’s a sense in which jazz has yet to get beyond Coltrane and his influence. The music has known nothing else like his combination of relentlessly probing artistry and profound moral force. Maybe no art form has. Bach’s music, it’s been said, is the sound of God counting. Coltrane’s is God being implored — and answering?
The tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s one peer, says in “Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary,” that he “wasn’t like 99 percent of other people. He existed in the real world; he had a family, he had kids. But that’s not where he was at. He was not in the real world. He was somewhere else.” John Scheinfeld’s film gives us intimations of that somewhere else, but not often enough.
The documentary variously consists of archival performance footage, home movies, photographs, pointlessly flashy graphics, and many, many talking heads.
Some of the best are fellow tenor saxophonists: Rollins; Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath, adolescent friends of Coltrane in Philadelphia; his son Ravi. Some would presumably be equally good if more than just glimpsed, such as pianist McCoy Tyner, the last surviving member of the classic Coltrane quartet. Instead we get far too much of Bill Clinton, Doors drummer John Densmore (it’s suggested that maybe Jim Morrison got his singing style from Coltrane’s saxophone style), and philosopher-activist Cornel West, a little of whom goes a very long way. So much of what they have to say sounds banal or extraneous compared to the music heard on the soundtrack.
“Chasing Trane” has two great virtues. One is Denzel Washington reading excerpts from Coltrane’s writings. He’s an inspired choice. Somehow that majestic, reedy voice evokes the character of Coltrane. The other virtue is home-movie footage. Coltrane, in his person no less than in his music, always seemed so imposing, probably the closest jazz has come to a biblical figure. Here we get to see him relaxed, casual, not searching for that somewhere else but happily right there. The last thing we see before the credits, he’s outside with two of his sons. He mugs for the camera, breaks into a grin, bows. It’s absolutely glorious.
CHASING TRANE: THE JOHN COLTRANE DOCUMENTARY
Written and directed by: John Scheinfeld. At Coolidge Corner. 99 minutes. Unrated (drug references of the jazz sort, a few casual obscenities).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.