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There's a tricky balancing act in documentaries about famous musicians, getting the right ratio of music to biographical information and though director John Scheinfeld doesn't hit the perfect proportions in "Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary," he thankfully errs on the side of the music.
Scheinfeld ("The U.S. vs. John Lennon") chronicles the short but spectacular career of the legendary jazz saxophonist, starting near the middle at his lowest point: getting fired from Miles Davis' quintet after being caught shooting heroin. The movie then circles back to Coltrane's childhood in North Carolina, his brief stint in the Navy in 1945-46, and his early music gigs in Philadelphia's burgeoning jazz scene.
It was in Philly that Coltrane first saw his idol, the great Charlie "Bird" Parker, in concert. "The first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes," Coltrane said years later (his words in the film are spoken by Denzel Washington). Coltrane went on to play in Dizzy Gillespie's band for a stretch, before hooking up with the Miles Davis Quartet.
Being fired by Davis, the documentary tells us, was a pivotal point in Coltrane's life. He experienced a spiritual change in 1957, say family members and biographers interviewed here, got off heroin and booze, and focused on his music. Within the next few years, he recorded his first album as a band leader, "Giant Steps," and had a radio hit with his soprano-sax rendition of "My Favorite Things" (from "The Sound of Music").
More performances and albums followed, as Coltrane and his first quartet stretched the bounds of jazz, most notably in his masterpiece "A Love Supreme." In his last years, before his death from liver cancer in 1967 at age 40, he broke those bounds and alienated audiences with relentlessly avant-garde explorations into what would later be called "free jazz."
Scheinfeld collects a wealth of interviews with musicians who knew and worked with Coltrane, with some of his children, and with a flood of admirers including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, guitarist Carlos Santana, the rapper Common and former president (and fellow sax man) Bill Clinton. The movie also takes a curious tangent into Japan, where Coltrane became fascinated with the A-bomb strike on Nagasaki and where the world's leading collector of Coltrane memorabilia lives.
The interviews don't entirely fill the holes in Coltrane's life story such as that "spiritual awakening," which is explored in vague terms but they do provide a sense of the man. As for the artist, Scheinfeld relies on the huge output of studio recordings, TV appearances and concert footage to paint an aural picture of Coltrane's evolving style.
Still, there's something undefinable about his music, even 50 years after his death. As much as "Chasing Trane" tries to nail down what that is, Coltrane always was a step ahead.
'Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary'
A thorough documentary of jazz legend John Coltrane highlights the music, but can't quite nail down the man's gifts.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, June 2.
Rating • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for language, drug use and sexual references.
Running time • 99 minutes.