Thursday, March 23, 2017

Jazz, love, death -- 45 years back -- in Kasper Collin's documentary I CALLED HIM MORGAN

It's odd, but somehow quite fitting, that the fellow we learn least about in Kasper Collin's fine documentary, I CALLED HIM MORGAN, is the title character, a jazz trumpeter named Lee Morgan. We hear his music and can easily determine how talented he was (very) but his character, his personality, his quirks and all the rest are barely there. Instead, we come much closer to the two important women in Morgan's life: Judith Johnson, still alive, who fills us in on her role as the "other woman," and Helen Morgan, Lee's common-law wife, who rescued the drug-addicted guy from the gutter, nourished him, loved him, and then shot him dead. (If you're expecting "The Helen Morgan Story," you'll be getting something quite different from those starring Polly Bergen or Ann Blyth.)

Mr. Collin, the Swedish filmmaker pictured at right, has done plenty of homework here, and the result is a smart and generous array of history, memory (provided by those two women and Lee Morgan's friends and co-musicians), and some terrific archival film and photography -- all of it set to music featuring Morgan (shown below, left), his own band and that of Dizzy Gillespie, with whom Morgan began his career. All of this makes the movie a must for jazz lovers, and for anyone who might want to take a time trip back to the the USA, the South, and then New York City in the 1960s and 70s.

The manner in which the film incorporates its music is particularly lovely: It is used in a way that the best movie soundtracks do in order to highlight emotions and events yet still manages to stay true to itself as jazz. (Interestingly enough, both Lee Morgan and Miles Davis did not appreciate the appellation of jazz to the kind of music either of them wrote and performed.)

As the movie tells its story -- which is based mostly on the only known interview that Helen Morgan ever gave after her prison term to journalist/teacher Larry Reni Thomas in 1996, as well as another with Val Wilmer in Helen's Bronx apartment back in 1971 -- we learn of Helen's life as child: given up by her mother to be raised by her grandparents, then leaving at a very young age for the "big city."

That city was, first, Wilmington, North Carolina, and then finally New York.

We learn of Helen's cooking skills, her detestation at being photographed (hence the paucity of shots of her here!), and finally of how she met, bonded with and saved Lee, after his descent into drugs. In the course of it all, we are also made acquainted with the culture of the time, and black music experience, and the black experience in general. And of course the casual, embedded racism of the day: Even in a snowstorm, how could it have taken a New York City ambulance one full hour to arrive at the scene of the shooting?

A sad story filled with wonderful music, I Called Him Morgan highlights, among other things, black male patriarchy vs strong black women, and the difficulty with which those women had to negotiate their route in life. After being released from prison, Helen -- never a religious person -- finds what salvation she can by working with and helping her local church in Wilmington, North Carolina.

From FilmRise and Submarine Deluxe, the documentary opens tomorrow, Friday, March 24,  in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and on Friday, March 31, at NYC's Metrograph and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center and elsewhere. Click here to view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

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