Insightful documentary 'Chasing Trane' follows the spiritual and musical quest of jazz legend John Coltrane
Posted June 2
“CHASING TRANE: THE JOHN COLTRANE DOCUMENTARY” — 3 stars — Common, Bill Clinton, Cornel West, Carlos Santana, voice of Denzel Washington; not rated; Broadway
Watching a movie like “Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary,” it’s easy to look back at your life and wonder how a single moment can make all the difference. Director John Scheinfeld’s John Coltrane documentary covers the entire life story of the celebrated jazz saxophonist, but it becomes quickly clear how the events of 1957 were critical to the man’s career and legacy.
Using a combination of live footage, gorgeous black and white photography and interviews from friends and family, “Chasing Trane” traces the too-brief career of Coltrane, who died of liver cancer at age 40. His music is a constant voice throughout the film, but Scheinfeld also brings in Denzel Washington to provide a voiceover of Coltrane’s own words.
The sum total is an insightful 99-minute documentary that, while fairly routine in its execution, is driven by a compelling story that should be appreciated by diehard jazz fans and people who just enjoy music in general.
Scheinfeld jumps into Coltrane’s story in 1957, as the up-and-coming tenor saxophone player is about to be fired from his spot in Miles Davis’ band because of drug problems. At this point, Coltrane is also a family man, faced with a decision that will shape the rest of his life.
From this setup, Scheinfeld flashes back to Coltrane’s childhood in Depression-era North Carolina. When a quick sequence of family tragedies clear the male influences from his life, Coltrane becomes absorbed in music, eventually zeroing in on tenor sax.
His early story follows a learning curve that takes him in and out of a who’s-who circle of jazz legends, watching Charlie Parker as a young man, then playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk before landing with Davis. Unfortunately, he also gives in to the culture of heroin that plagued the scene, and it is interesting to hear several of Coltrane’s contemporaries criticize the supposed creative value of the drug.
Once we arrive at 1957, “Chasing Trane” truly gets interesting, as we learn about how Coltrane’s decision to drop his drug habit cold eventually spins into the groundbreaking jazz style that made him famous, and led to albums like 1965’s “A Love Supreme.” We also get a heavy dose of Coltrane’s spiritual side, which grew out of a traditional Christian upbringing in the South, then became more ambiguous over time.
Anecdotes, commentaries and perspectives are provided by Coltrane’s children, his friends and many of his associates. We also hear from several familiar faces, like Wynton Marsalis, Dr. Cornel West and even our saxophone-playing ex-president, Bill Clinton. (The documentary’s title comes from a Japanese super-fan who is profiled late in the film.)
It may be a little difficult for casual jazz fans to appreciate just what made Coltrane so different — most of the people interviewed for “Chasing Trane” do a good job of praising his work without quite explaining what made it what it was. But another familiar face might sum things up best when Carlos Santana suggests that while other musicians might play blues or soul or jazz, Coltrane “played life.”
Throughout all of it, and right up to his time in Japan prior to his death, “Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary” keeps coming back to Coltrane’s spiritual quest, underscoring his desire to do something valuable and serviceable that celebrates God. According to West, Coltrane succeeded, having “left a little heaven behind.”
Scheinfeld’s film may not reinvent the documentary genre the way its subject attacked the genre of jazz, and at times it seems to gloss over problematic areas, but his uplifting subject makes his film more than worth a look.
“Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary” is not rated, but might draw a PG for some profanity, adult content and disturbing imagery; running time: 99 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.