Unless you are already a fan of Medeski Martin & Wood, and a huge fan at that, or if you have the widest open of minds, this film is probably and unfortunately not for you. And even if you fall into one of those categories, patience will still be king to enjoy the jazz trio’s first feature film, Fly in a Bottle. Though the musical sections, which thankfully make up a majority of the reel, are striking to witness, the film itself is haphazardly shot and poorly mixed. It feels as if it were put together as an afterthought, a conglomeration of home videos later edited together.
The first eight minutes are hardly even audible, let alone comprehendible. As the trio and their sound techs fiddle with cables and instruments, no explanation is given nor introductions made – and again, unless you are already familiar with the band, you may not even know who is who until they each sit down at their instruments. But it’s then, eight minutes into the film, as they sit down and the mixing board is adjusted to perfection, and the opening notes of “Amish Pintxos” hit, that they finally get your attention. Unfortunately, once the music ends, the film falls back into obliviousness to its audience and we are forced to strain our ears to hear and our minds to keep attention.
Just as with their music, a funky and experimental form of free jazz that has led the way for improvisational music since their start in the early ’90s, the film Fly In A Bottle moves in and out of traceable and functional steps for its entirety. Directed by drummer Billy Martin, and culled from a years of worth of 16mm tape of the band on the road and in the studio, the documentary traces the recording of their Radiolarians series of albums – a set of recordings that moved backwards from the normal progression. Instead of recording an album and then touring to promote it, the Radioloarians discs were formed and molded during their extensive touring schedule, and then put to album shortly after.
Whether in the studio or not, Medeski Martin & Wood are always thinking about music — they hum riffs and discuss successful performances. But the most interesting points, of course, are watching the band perform – both on stage and in the studio. These are also the most successful points of filming and editing of the documentary. The camera holds on each player long enough to get a feel for their part, the rhythm and the melody, before cutting to the next player. As each tune gains momentum, the cuts become more momentous. John Medeski slams on his piano and actually breaks a key, and Wood’s body vibrates along with the intensity of the song.
Their music has always spoken for itself, and the band’s fans have never asked for – nor have they needed – anything more. In the film, as on stage, songs are mostly played without introduction, and cities toured are only briefly identified, if at all. None of the players in the band are ever formally introduced, and they are hardly even referred to by name. Even guitar legend John Scofield’s appearance goes without mention, though he is listed as one of the stars of the film. The same is true of bassist Chris Wood’s brother Oliver, and the band’s manager is spoken about only during a filmed radio interview during which the trio has to speak through a Spanish interpreter in Latin America, though she is on camera quite a few times and is quite obviously an important member of their team.
In fact, with its mysterious lack of explanation, the film itself mirrors Medeski Martin & Wood’s career almost to a tee. In their 20 years together, it’s been rare that any of them explain a tune or their reasoning for doing something beyond a simple “This song is called…” preamble. In that, the film is somewhat of a success – it mirrors and therefore explains the band’s collective personality. Unfortunately, it’s that personality that also hinders the film from being desirable to a majority audience. Instead, it’s likely only appealing to current fans of the group, and won’t do much to attract new recruits.
The extra features are, mostly, equally hard to access, though their brevity allows the viewer to focus on their entirety. The “Incant to ‘Chantes Des Femmes’” by director Greg Gersten, is just as its description claims: esoteric. There is not much more to say. CW is a less-than-five-minute experiment with time directed again by Martin, featuring the distorted faces of his bandmates as frames freeze and speed up – actually, it’s quite humorous.
The music video for “Amber Gris” is one of the more successful pieces of film on the disc, though it is quite difficult to explain. Shot in black and white, the camera mainly focuses on the instrumental performances of the trio. It also spends time on the figure of an old man seemingly as he sits and watches the band perform, or possibly he’s just sitting alone remembering his life. As with all of Medeski Martin & Wood’s art, there is not much need or room for explanation, you simply just have to decide for yourself.