CHASING TRANE: The John Coltrane Documentary

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Artist Feature,   From Issue 852   By: Robert E Martin

26th October, 2017     0

Jazz artist John Coltrane is arguably one of the most revolutionary and ground-breaking musicians of the 20th Century, charting a blueprint of musical contradictions through the mathematical precision and accomplishment of his musical constructions that simultaneously knew no boundaries when it came to creating innovative architectures to his music.

CHASING TRANE: THE JOHN COLTRANE DOCUMENTARY is a thought-provoking, uplifting, powerful and passionate film created by the brilliant documentary filmmaker John Scheinfeld, about this outside-the-box thinker whose boundary-shattering music continues to impact and influence people around the world. 

This rich, textured and compelling portrait of a remarkable artist reveals the critical events, passions, experiences and challenges that shaped the life of John Coltrane and his revolutionary sounds. It is a story of demons and darkness, of persistence and redemption. But, above all else, it is the incredible journey of a spiritual warrior who found himself, found God; and in the process, created an extraordinary body of work that transcends all barriers of race, religion, age and geography. But mainly, it is a film for anyone who appreciates the power of music to entertain, inspire and transform.

The beauty, poignancy, energy, pain, joy and inspiration heard in nearly 50 Coltrane recordings from throughout his career brings alive the artist and the times in which he lived. Even those familiar with his music will be able to hear and appreciate the music of Coltrane in a new and exciting way through the careful cultivation of this film.

Although Coltrane never participated in any television interviews (and only a handful for radio) during his lifetime, he has an active and vibrant presence in the film through his print interviews. These words -- spoken by Academy Award winner Denzel Washington – illuminate what John Coltrane was thinking and feeling at critical moments throughout his life and career.

Writer/director John Scheinfeld is a critically-acclaimed documentary filmmaker that has received Emmy, Grammy, and Writers Guild Award nominations and is best known for two widely acclaimed films: The U.S. vs John Lennon and Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him, both about two of the most talented and uncompromising singer-songwriters in Pop music history.

Chasing Trane was an official selection of the Telluride Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival, and will be showing at the Riverside Saginaw Film Festival on Saturday, November 11th on the third floor of The Saginaw Club at 2 PM and at The Castle Museum at 11 AM.

John Coltrane was a deeply gifted man, haunted by childhood loss, driven to perfect his art even as he was plagued by drug addiction.   Coltrane was eventually forced to choose between continuing on a self-destructive path or dedicating himself to a clean, spiritual, existence that brings together everything that inspired him from the time he was a child.  Unlike his hero Charlie Parker, Coltrane overcame the biggest challenge of his life through the strength of will and faith. And, it was only after he kicked his addiction to heroin that Coltrane truly ascended as a musical artist.

Coltrane constantly experimented with his music by pushing the envelope, incorporating different sounds and genres of music into his compositions, and never repeating himself.  Each new Coltrane album had a different style and tone than the one that came before.

Growing up in the South, Coltrane experienced discrimination and segregation first-hand.  He rarely talked about it, preferring to include politics in his music.  In 1963, following the murder of four young girls by white supremacists in the bombing of a Birmingham church, he composed “Alabama,” which included a melody based on speech patterns in the eulogy delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1964 he produced his masterwork, “A Love Supreme.”   Described as a "song of the human heart reaching up to heaven," the totality of Coltrane’s spiritual consciousness expresses itself most fully on that album.  It became a best-seller, not only in its time, but in our time.

Refusing to stand still, Coltrane began to explore new musical ideas that challenge most ears, pushing his instrument to its limit, much like Jimi Hendrix would later do with the electric guitar.  Along the way he found his soul mate, Alice McLeod Coltrane, started a family and created an extraordinary body of work. 

In July 1967 his life was cut short by liver cancer. And then an amazing thing happened.  His reputation and popularity grew.  Coltrane became an icon, inspiring generations of subsequent musicians across all genres of music.

Recently I was fortunate to interview director John Scheinfeld about the intricacies of this remarkable new film.

Review:  Why did you decide to assemble this documentary about Coltrane and what were some of the objectives that you were striving to achieve with this film?

Scheinfeld: From the outset, it was important that this be a film for everyone, not just Coltrane fans or jazz aficionados. The goal for me and my creative team—producer Dave Harding and editor/co-producer Peter Lynch—was to produce a portrait of a remarkable artist and to explore the critical events and influences that shaped him and his art.

Some people know Coltrane, some don’t. Some know his story, others are familiar primarily with photos of a serious artist on record covers, and still others may only be vaguely aware of his name. For all those people and many more we wanted to bring Coltrane alive as a 3-dimensional human being in all his richness and complexity. We wanted to show Trane as he was then and now: an outside-the-box thinker whose boundary-shattering work continues to impact people around the world 50 years after his tragic death in 1967.

To accomplish this challenging task took approximately two years from start to finish. The first step was to read and absorb everything I possibly could about Coltrane, his life, his influences and the art that emerged as a result. Once I was able to see the big picture then I could begin the long and arduous process of structuring the film. I liken this part of the process to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. However, where the pieces of the jigsaw only fit together one way, the pieces of a film can be put together 10 ways, 20 ways, 100 ways. It’s how we as filmmakers put the pieces together that makes a film good, bad or ugly. 

In a documentary film these pieces include interviews, photos, performance clips, home movies and music. First, I had to decide who would be interviewed for the film. Possible subjects were divided into four categories: People who knew and worked with Coltrane (Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Reggie Workman, Wayne Shorter); family members who would provide a more intimate perspective (step-daughters Antonia Andrews and Michelle Coltrane, sons Ravi and Oran); musicians who have been inspired by his fearless artistry and creative vision (Common, John Densmore, Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Kamasi Washington); and unexpected choices who added passion and eloquence (Dr. Cornel West, President Bill Clinton). 

Review:  When you look at the arc of Coltrane's career from his more traditional early phases into his later highly evolved and seemingly atonal improvisations where we would take one simple measure of a melody line and break it down into a myriad of divergent yet connected phrasings, what do you feel precipitated this transition and what was the most surprising thing you learned about Coltrane during the course of his musical evolution?

Scheinfeld:  I confess that I was not an obsessed John Coltrane fan when work began on Chasing Trane. Like many others, I had been introduced to his remarkable work through his recording of My Favorite Things and later came to know and be inspired by A Love Supreme. But the more I read about him, the better I came to believe that his was a special and unique story. 

We’ve all heard the cliché tale—a young artist with awesome talent explodes on the scene, has great success, makes a lot of money, abuses one substance or another, and as a result dies young. Coltrane was the antithesis of this. He had his challenges early on but, by sheer force of will and hard work, he overcame them and began his journey to greatness. To me, this was an inspiring and uplifting story.

The key to understanding John Coltrane’s musical evolution, from my point of view, is that he is timeless. And not only timeless, but his work defies categorization. Just when you think you have him figured out he released an album on which tried something entirely new and different. He was constantly pushing the envelope and exploring the limits of his art and talent. And he did so without concern for the effect it might have on his record sales and overall career. This resulted in an amazing catalogue that remains as fresh, unique and inspirational today as it was when he recorded it. 

Review:  The late 1950s and early to late 1960s were a landmark decade for contemporary jazz, with many performers such as Coltrane, Miles Davis, and even Sonny Stitt (born in my hometown of Saginaw) breaking through into fresh, exhilarating and exploratory territory.  What do you feel it was about that decade that engendered such an explosion of pioneering expression?

Scheinfeld: I’m not an expert on jazz and don’t feel qualified to offer an opinion on this subject. In fact, from the outset it was important that Chasing Trane be a film for everyone, not just Coltrane fans or hard core jazz aficionados. That said, I’m mindful of something Coltrane said during an interview and is spoken in the film by Denzel Washington, “I myself don’t recognize the word jazz. I mean, we’re sold under this name, but to me the word doesn’t exist. I just feel that I play John Coltrane.”

Review:  What was the most challenging component involved with bringing this project to completion?

Scheinfeld: There are countless challenges involved in making a film. With regard to Chasing Trane, one example involved our ability to bring Coltrane alive for the audience. Although John Coltrane never did any television interviews and only a handful for radio during his lifetime and the sound wasn’t good enough to use. Yet, I wanted him to have an active and vibrant presence in the film beyond just performance clips.  Fortunately, Coltrane did a number of newspaper and magazine interviews during his career and I believe he chose his words carefully so as to be truthful even as he opened a small window into his thought-process. Those thoughts, taken from print interviews and record liner notes, and spoken in the film by Academy Award® winner Denzel Washington, illuminate what Coltrane might have been thinking or feeling at key moments during his life and career. In many of his roles Denzel plays men of quiet strength. Coltrane, many of his friends told me, embodied a similar strength. That’s why Denzel was my first choice to speak his words and I’m thrilled he made the time to participate in our film. He is a superb actor and his interpretation of Coltrane really and truly enables the audience to better understand who John was as a man and as an artist. 

Review:  Please tell me a bit about your own background.  How did you get interested in film and who are some of the directors that influenced and informed your own sensibilities about filmmaking?

Scheinfeld: Growing up I watched altogether too many films and television shows. The earliest influence came at age 11 when my parents took me to see Lawrence of Arabia. I was blown away by the brilliant script, direction (by David Lean) and performances and just knew that writing and directing something was what I wanted to do. Classic filmmakers such as Orson Welles, Frank Capra, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg have made a significant impact on me as have many others. The common factor here is that they are all awesome storytellers. I’m all about story and that’s carried me through the various phases of my career from studio development executive, to producer, to writer of scripted content and, eventually, to documentary filmmaker. 

Review:  What do you feel are the biggest contributions and lessons to be learned from Coltrane's life?

Scheinfeld: The musical journey of John Coltrane, which incorporated spiritual exploration, is in inspiring in so many ways. Whether it is having the courage to confront one’s own demons…the importance of following one’s dreams irrespective of what others may say…whether it’s the importance and persistence of vision…even understanding and effectively commenting on the world around us…there are so many aspects of Coltrane’s life and extraordinary body of work that are worth talking about and emulating. 



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