A Colossal Misunderstanding
Robert Mugge’s 1986 film Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus, re-released on DVD by Acorn Media, is perhaps one of the better demonstrations of the comically unintended results that can arise from one’s best intentions. It is clear throughout the film and in the set of “Reflections” of the director (the one extra included with the DVD) that Mugge deeply admires his subject.
In the “Reflections”, he details the troubles to which he went to get the somewhat reclusive saxophone legend to agree to do the film. He interviews Rollins and his doting wife Lucille in the calm splendor of a New York City park. He lavishes loving close-ups on the performer during his improvisations. He even finds three eager and renowned jazz critics (renowned now, certainly, if not necessarily at that time)—Ira Gitler, Gary Giddens, and Francis Davis—that are willingly to effusively praise Rollins as the single greatest living improviser in jazz. (This last achievement is undermined rather hilariously when Lucille, in the very next moment, reveals her secret fantasy of defenestrating jazz critics from the top floor of a high-rise.)
All of this is laudable. I can think of few jazz artists active in the mid-‘80s so worthy of affection as Sonny Rollins. The problem emerges when the viewer realizes that Mugge does not understand one iota of Rollins’s approach to his art.
Mugge’s utter lack of comprehension emerges nearly every time he films a Rollins performance. Actually the film begins promisingly enough. It opens with a rousing performance of “G-Man” from a concert held in August 1985 in Saugerties, New York. Rollins and his combo are performing on a stage made of stone in front of a large rock obelisk. The landscape perfectly echoes the craggy, unforgiving improvisational lines delivered by Rollins during his extended improvisation.
The camerawork here might be a bit amateurish (a lot of sweeping pans, shots of other members of the camera crew, extended engagements with children romping about) but at least the performance is given in its entirety. This is absolutely essential when one’s subject is Sonny Rollins. As Gunther Schuller very famously noted long ago, the key to Rollins’ approach is the way ideas progress and develop over the course of a given improvisation.
This is emotional music but it is also and more importantly (despite Gary Giddens’s professed confusion by the term’s application to Rollins) intellectual music. One has to pay careful attention. The ideas, when taken out of context, may sound at best trivial and at worst trite. It is only by paying attention to the gradual working out of his ideas that a Rollins performance becomes not only notable but also a truly moving experience. Mugge gets it right here at the outset of the film, but the remainder of his examination falls flat precisely because he insists on treating Rollins’ art as something that one can understand through excerpts.
The worst example of this appears at the conclusion of the film during a performance (from the same date) of “Don’t Stop the Carnival”. Mugge shows the opening of the tune and then cuts away for some last thoughts from the various talking heads. When he returns to the performance, we find Rollins heading toward the climax of his improvisation.
At this point, Rollins seems to be obsessed with a foghorn type of sound. It appears (taken like this, out of context) to be a mere gimmick, a bit of silly noise. Those with experience with Rollins will doubtless assume that this sound is a reference to something that occurred earlier in the improvisation. But without an awareness of what happened earlier, it sounds like a cheap cliché. The saddest aspect of the film’s closing is that one of the comments delivered during the break in the performance is Rollins’ wife Lucille’s proclamation that her husband is playing better at that moment in his career than he ever had. This is quite possibly true but you could never suppose that from Mugge’s film.
Sadly, however, not all of the blame can be laid at Mugge’s door. The filmmaker had the unfortunate timing to catch Rollins preparing the May 1986 premiere of his Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra, commissioned by the Yomiuri Shinbun (the Yomiuri Newspaper) and performed by the Yomiuri Orchestra in Tokyo. Written by Rollins and arranged and orchestrated by Heikki Sarmanto, the Concerto amounts to little more than a collection of cadential flourishes and ostinati over the course of seven dull movements (five of which are shown here) orchestrated as though Sarmanto has heard no music in his life aside from Ravel’s “Bolero”.
The work features far too many unison passages, repetition, and fan-fare figures that progress nowhere. If, as I insisted above, Rollins’ music is about progressing and developing, then this piece must be considered woefully uncharacteristic. The Concerto is an unlikely and unfortunate combination of bombast, cliché, and schmaltz.
Mugge’s filming of its second performance and his editing of that film does the piece no favors. Because so much of the piece sounds like bad movie music anyway, it’s difficult to tell precisely when a movement begins because Mugge separates each with interviews and then casually moves on to whatever other images tickle his fancy before turning his attention back to the performance itself. The opening movement sounds like it opens in media res with Mugge filming audience members buying tickets and mementos—not the best choice for a piece that already sounds as though it were full of endings without beginnings and middles.
For each of the other movements, Mugge sought an individual “look”. This ranged from shots of people bathing in incense, to repeated and incongruous close-ups of a shop-owner admiring a potted plant to extended contemplations of the Japanese camera crew. The latter relied heavily upon shots of television monitors displaying the performance itself as if to say “if you thought my filming of the concert was bad, check this out”.
Not all films on musicians have to include complete performances, but one that purports to demonstrate that its subject is at the top of his form ought to do so. Not all films have to include verbal sparring, but the critics here seemed afraid to say anything insightful at all for fear that they might sound, well, like critics. And unfortunately, the main attraction to the film (a premiere of a work for saxophone and orchestra by a great musician) turned out to be a tepid affair, at best. There are so many good reasons to get to know Rollins and his music on a deeper level. Unfortunately, this film is not the means for attaining that knowledge.