‘Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser’ screened at Amherst Cinema

By Garth Brody

Filmgoers entered the sold-out Amherst Cinema theater Monday night to solo guitarist Rich Goldstein’s pleasant renditions of jazz compositions by Thelonious Monk. He played a range of styles as the theater filled up, from ballads to foot-tapping blues to rubato virtuosity; it served as a fitting overture for the film to follow.

After a brief introduction covering the outline of Monk’s life and previewing a few choice scenes by Tom Reney, the host of WFCR’s “Jazz à la mode,” the film began. The screening was followed by a short but enlightening Q&A session led by Reney.

“Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” is, as its title (taken from a Monk composition) suggests, a documentary with a clear focus. Composed almost entirely of archival footage of concerts, recording sessions and downtime with Monk, peppered with interviews with friends and family, the film paints a vivid and naturalistic portrait of the jazz legend’s peculiar brand of genius.

The film, directed by the late Charlotte Zwerin (“Gimme Shelter,” “Salesman”) and produced by Clint Eastwood was originally released in 1988. “Straight, No Chaser” is, to quote Tom Reney’s introduction, Eastwood’s “mea culpa for his overreaching” in his previous jazz-related work, the biopic “Bird” about Charlie Parker, released earlier the same year.

In “Bird,” Eastwood hired musicians to re-record the backing band under Parker’s electronically isolated solos. The jazz world’s distaste for that technique may have led to Eastwood’s participation in this project, where a cinema vérité style derived from lots and lots of archival footage lends a sense of honesty to the film.

“Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” opens on a black screen with white credits as Monk’s rhythm section gets going on “Evidence”. Then it cuts to a shot of Monk, larger than life, looming over the camera in his signature cap, spinning slowly on his feet. He spins for ten or so seconds, and then walks off screen. A few seconds later, without missing a beat, he scurries over to the piano and comes in right on cue.

He proceeds to play a beautiful solo, the camera following his fingers closely all the while. They look like they land accidentally on each key; his hands hover over the piano like a those of a child hesitating in indecision over a bowl of assorted candy. He would frankly look like a bit of a novice on the instrument if it weren’t for the unbelievable performance he pulls off. And he knows exactly what he’s doing at every moment of it – at one point he draws a hankerchief from his pocket and wipes his brow, holding the groove with one hand.

The film chronicles Monk’s life through narration, describing his early years growing up in Manhattan over Ken Burns style still photo zooms and his artistic rise at Minton’s Playhouse and the legendary Five Spot Café. It covers his invaluable contributions to jazz, his connections and collaborations, his long delayed recognition and everything else you would expect in a biographical documentary on Thelonious Monk.

But what sets “Straight, No Chaser” apart is the richness of the archival footage. We see Monk on and off stage with all his trademark eccentricities, and we see a lot of him. Most of the movies’ screen time is devoted to the man, and it works. We become acquainted with his style, his tics, his bemused interactions with curious and often oblivious strangers and his warmth with friends and family; some of the film’s most memorable and moving moments are the long takes of Monk with his wife Nellie on the road, getting ready in Swedish hotels or waiting for the train.

The film moves gracefully between this old footage and interviews with bandmates, family, and other various acquaintances and experts. What we get from the interviews that is noticeably absent from the rest of the film is a hint at the serious mental health problems that Monk faced, resulting in his seclusion at the end of his years that is thankfully skipped in the course of the film’s life. In this way, the film achieves a complete portrait of the man without dragging the audience through the sad futility of his last days.
Instead, his funeral comes as abruptly in the movie as it might have seemed to come to his confused fans when he died in 1982. The funeral footage is followed by another fantastic Monk performance, at the close of which, the film ends.

Thelonious Monk is portrayed in “Straight, No Chaser” as a genius, driven and confounded by the complexities of his fragile mind to achieve artistic greatness and suffer a terrible mental breakdown.

He is always cool, but not with the finger-snapping hipness of his jazz contemporaries; he is frazzled and scatterbrained, mumbling indecipherably until you hear whatever incredible thing he finally arrives at (on a bus in Europe, he is laughing hysterically at a bandmate’s goofy striped pants, eventually coming out with the phrase “bad mother[expletive]!”). And his playing style follows, hesitating and stumbling, striking perfect musical clarity at the most unexpected moments.

Even more fascinating – and something you can only get from a documentary like this – is how he interacts with his fellow musicians, several times responding to their questions concerning the specifics of his compositions with something along the lines of “play what you want.” Despite his idiosyncraties, he trusts the spontaneity of his colleagues as he does his own hands.
Monk in “Straight, No Chaser” is portrayed as bizarre and often contradictory – articulate through mumbles, magnanimous and introverted, childlike and masterful on his instrument – he even takes a shot with a pretty long chaser at one point after a show. He is, like any true genius, impossible to pin down.

So we’re left with his music. And really, that’s what the film is about. A dozen or so pieces are performed by Monk and his quartet or octet throughout the 90 minutes, each one dynamic and intimately shot. The only one that moved the audience to applause, however, was performed by neither his quartet nor his octet. In fact, it wasn’t even performed by Monk at all. It was a piano duet on one of Monk’s compositions performed by his aging contemporaries Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan. Their reverence for Monk’s music is underlined by their refusal to play it like Monk.

Because only Monk plays it like Monk. And only Monk does what Monk does; that rotating dance we see him do in the opening sequence is repeated four more times in the movie, accentuating his unique strangeness. His moves, his hats, his glasses, and of course his music – everything about Monk makes him a true American original.

His birthday is coming up – October 10. Celebrate it however you want. But in his honor, you may consider doing it straight, no chaser.

Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected]