We gave it a B+
Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones is the first feature-length documentary to employ the jazzy, stream-of-consciousness technique pioneered on the MTV program Buzz. The style involves the use of jump-cuts, rhythmic repetition, and interviews that are fragmented and woven together into intricate sound-bite collages, so that different peoples’ quotes overlap and comment on one another. This isn’t the sort of style you’d want to see applied to, say, the Civil War (and some may dismiss it as idle flash). Yet when it’s done as well as it is here, the result is a new kind of head-spinning documentary trance-out — and Listen Up has a fitting subject for it.
What’s interesting about Quincy Jones isn’t simply that he’s a top-notch record producer, or that he started out as a jazz trumpeter, or that he spent much of the ’60s composing scores for such films as In Cold Blood and The Pawnbroker. It’s that he did all these things. Listen Up uses its dense, allusive style to pay tribute to a man whose hallmark is the breathless variety of his talent. Artists who cross over from jazz to pop are often viewed as sellouts. Jones, though, was a mediocre trumpet player who found himself creatively by experimenting with pop forms. Certainly, his greatest achievement has been inventing the elegantly ferocious grooves on Michael Jackson’s albums — as indelible a sound as any in modern pop.
The movie strains a bit to link up Jones with current rap artists, and there are too many folks saying what a great guy Quincy is (the worst is Steven Spielberg, who describes him as ”a spray gun of love”). Yet Jones’ dark side is here, too. As Listen Up goes on, a portrait emerges of a man so bent on transcending his South-side-of-Chicago roots that he became an almost religious careeraholic, destroying several marriages in the process. The film, which includes pungent interviews with Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Flavor Flav, and even the Gloved One (who refused to be photographed), is the story of a consummate craftsmen — no more, no less — who climbed aboard the rocket of pop and hasn’t looked back since. B+