Award-winning director John Scheinfeld had a monumental task before him, when he decided to make a documentary about one of the greatest musicians of all time, an icon and—to many—a god. And in attempting to capture the essence of John Coltrane, all while telling his complicated story of tragedy, love and artistic and spiritual experimentation under the umbrella of jazz music, Scheinfeld is as successful as often as he is not. “Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary” introduces viewers to a legend, his closest friends and his greatest admirers, but fails to create a truly intimate portrait of the man behind and within the music.
Perhaps because of its subject matter, the best moments of the film are its strangest moments. The opening images of galaxies and outer space insist that we understand Coltrane as more than a human, or even an exceptional artist—but rather as a cosmic being and a “spiritual giant,” as one musician describes him. And towards the end of the film, we finally arrive at the source of the film’s title, in Osaka, Japan, with Yasuhiro Fujioka, the collector and scholar who owns so much Coltrane music and memorabilia, he had to build a house to keep it all in one place. He proudly boasts of spending four months out of every year chasing Trane around the world, looking for the next piece to add to what has become his life’s work. The film makes it abundantly clear that those who love Coltrane hear and feel his music as a singular energy, with its own presence. But the film itself spends too much time providing a biographical, chronologically-driven narrative that attempts to shoehorn in so many (admittedly significant) details about Coltrane’s life, that it never quite manages to capture this energy by its own merits.
Rather than spending large chunks of the film devoted to a particular time in his life, or a specific aspect of his work, Scheinfeld attempts to cover it all, beginning with Coltrane’s childhood in 1930s North Carolina, then Philadelphia, and moving on to his navy life, early gigs, drug abuse, religion and soul searching, and international and political impact. And, in spite of his commitment to telling a linear tale (which somehow feels like the wrong format, for such a soul as Coltrane’s), there lacks a fluidity in his narrative. In one moment, we’re in the club with the pimps and hustlers, and the heroin and alcohol that Coltrane would struggle with, and before we’ve been fully immersed in that world, we’re being rushed into a discussion of the musician’s distinctive style and innovations, as nurtured first by Dizzy Gillespie, and then Miles Davis. In other words, it’s all too much, and yet not enough. With interview subjects like Sonny Rollins, Bill Clinton, Cornel West and Wynton Marsalis—and countless others—there’s plenty of material, but much of the talk feels like a brushing over—a crash course in Coltrane, rather than a deep, emotional dive. The interviews with Coltrane’s surviving children, who share fond memories of their father’s unparalleled love for them, and his distinctive playing style, only seem to scratch the surface. And Denzel Washington, speaking the words of Coltrane here, is so underused, one can’t help but wish “Chasing Trane” had taken a page from the great book of Samuel L. Jackson and “I Am Not Your Negro.”
And still, there are powerfully intimate moments of the film that make it a completely worthwhile experience. In addition to deft use of photography and some stunning artwork, it’s unsurprising that many of the most beautiful moments come courtesy of Coltrane’s sax. Carlos Santana describes Trane’s work as having the distinctive ability to make you cry, even when your mind doesn’t understand what you’re feeling. Whether you listen to jazz or not, it’s true that hearing his performances in “Chasing Trane” makes for an emotional experience, and in this, “Chasing Trane” will likely convert many to this great American art form.
Ultimately, Scheinfeld succeeds in what is, perhaps, the film’s biggest endeavor—to speak to Coltrane’s relationship with music and spirituality so as to impart on the viewer John Coltrane, not as mere musician, but as a spiritual experience himself. Alice Coltrane’s reaction to her husband’s death (at 40 years old), which I won’t spoil for anyone here, only makes sense when you consider what everyone in the documentary seems to agree on: that this was a man and a music not quite of this world, one who couldn’t live like anyone else, or play like anyone else. So he certainly couldn’t die like anyone else. And so, in spite of its flaws, “Chasing Trane” becomes one more way for the soul of Coltrane to live on, and an invitation for fans new and old to continue to chase the spirit and the sound that forever changed jazz, music and all manner of creation.
Distributed by Abramorama, “Chasing Trane” opens in New York City on April 14, 2017, at IFC Center, with Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and additional cities to follow. Visit coltranefilm.com for all upcoming scheduled openings in the USA.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shannonmhouston.