We gave it a B+
Few careers in contemporary music were as erratic and frustrating as that of the ingenious pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. During his most fruitful years, in the 1940s and ’50s, he was pilloried as a charlatan for his idiosyncratic style, which was built on angular rhythms, unconventional harmonies, and cunningly personal melodies. When he finally achieved popular success, including a Time cover in 1964, he was able to coast somewhat on his earlier achievements. But his time in the sun was brief.
In 1972, Monk confided to his friend and benefactor, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, that he was ill; except for two concerts in the mid ’70s, he never performed again. Since his death in 1982, he has become one of the most widely performed jazz composers of our time. At the height of Monk’s celebrity and just as his mysterious illness, which by all accounts was psychological, began to assert itself, the filmmakers Christian and Michael Blackwood followed him him around New York and on a tour of Europe. Last year, under the auspices of Clint Eastwood, director Charlotte Zwerin edited the Blackwood footage into Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser, a documentary film that is as fascinating and frustrating as its subject.
The Blackwood material is stunning and frequently revealing. Monk had begun to recede into a private world, yet he continued to play brilliantly. However, in the absence of other archival footage, and with only a minimal narrative scheme (and few interviews), we don’t really get to Monk or his art. With more attention focused on his strangeness than on his music, the figure that emerges is likely to seem exceedingly mysterious to those who aren’t familiar with him. Fans may very well be disappointed by the severe editing of the musical numbers — few are played through. Still, here is the great man up close, in a recording studio, rehearsing an octet in concert, navigating a gauntlet of admirers and reporters. Best of all, this documentary shows the magical fingers hammering out harsh and powerful melodies, inventing a new music with unfailing intelligence and matchless wit. B+