A documentary by John Scheinfeld. Rating unavailable
They say you should never meet your heroes. That might go double for seeing movies about them. It’s not that Chasing Trane will disillusion anyone about the greatness of the most influential tenor saxophonist of the 20th century. The 100-minute film is aimed at people who already understand John Coltrane’s importance—and therefore will be sorry it doesn’t go deeper—without providing much context for beginners.
Writer-director John Scheinfeld, who previously made TV docs on Bing Crosby, Bette Midler, and John Lennon, had nifty resources on hand. The best are home movies with second wife Alice and family. And the many photographs taken by Blue Note’s Francis Wolff (in early days) and Impulse! Records’ Chuck Stewart (much later) are nice. But since this is a post–Ken Burns thing, there are lots of tricky pans, semi-animated graphics, and pointless visual devices often obscuring the music itself.
The interlocutors, including guitarist Carlos Santana and sax great Jimmy Heath, have interesting, if familiar, things to offer. When Cornel West is one of your talking heads, you don’t actually need animation. But why get quasimuso Bill Clinton to ponder spiritual aspects of Trane’s art when we could (should) hear more from Wayne Shorter, who ultimately replaced the tenor man in Miles Davis’s timeless quintet? (Not that Scheinfeld tells us that.) Denzel Washington reads Coltrane’s own words, taken from interviews and liner notes, but this happens too sporadically to have much impact.
Although the film illustrates Coltrane’s debt to alto genius Charlie Parker, it doesn’t really address how Bird and Dizzy Gillespie—our late hero’s first serious employer—broke ranks with the swingsters who came before. It likewise doesn’t quite convey how revolutionary it was for Trane-era seekers to adopt a modal approach based on Asian and African modes and scales. He did, after all, name one of his sons Ravi, but the connection is only obvious to those in the know. There is a good section on the development of Coltrane’s magnum opus, A Love Supreme, but that seems destined to be a stand-alone YouTube bit—like so much of this scattershot effort.