Ornette: Made in America (Milestone Film & Video, NR)

ornette dvdOriginally released in 1985, this a celebration of the life and music of the great jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman.

Shirley Clarke didn’t make movies quite like anyone else. Such individuality can be a double-edged sword, as Clarke’s distinctive creative choices no doubt cost her some of the acclaim she deserved as a director, but also strengthened the admiration of those who understood and valued her work. Unfortunately, Clarke’s work has been largely unavailable for years, a situation now being remedied as Milestone Film & Video is restoring her films and releasing them on DVD and blu-Ray.

Ornette: Made in America, originally released in 1985, is a celebration of the life and music of the great jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. However, like one of Coleman’s improvisations, Ornette doesn’t take a straightforward path to its goal. This is true from the very opening of the film, as we are shown a young African-American boy (Demon Marshall) walking in and then out of a seedy-looking bar, juxtaposed with applause and the words, “You boys get on out of here.” It is quickly revealed that those words were part of a Wild West reenactment having nothing to do with Coleman other than taking place in the same city, Fort Worth, where he was about to be honored for his contributions to music. The child, meanwhile, is one of two actors Clark will use in staged scenes to represent Coleman as a child (Marshall) and adolescent (Eugene Tatum).

In a more metaphorical sense, the words fit perfectly, because Coleman was told to “get out of here” for much of his life. He was born in Fort Worth and taught himself to play the saxophone, performing with various bands as a teenager. Despite achieving early success, however, he was never content to stick to one style of music, but sought to develop a personal style fusing blues, funk, and bebop. This bucking of convention did not endear him to his fellow jazz musicians, some of whom refused to perform with him. Coleman also helped break down the barriers between classical music and jazz, composing for symphony orchestras and string quartets as well as jazz works with a varieties of instrumentations.

We critics often complain that documentaries do not reflect the spirit of their subjects, with the creakiest technical means frequently being applied to the most revolutionary of artists. That charge cannot be laid on Ornette, however, which has more in common with one of Coleman’s jazz pieces than it does with a conventional talking heads/archival footage/voiceover documentary. Even the conventional aspects of this film—including many performance clips identified with ticker-like chyrons—are combined in ways that keep you on your toes because you never know what Clarke will do next. When is the last time you had that experience while watching a documentary?

One particularly innovative aspect of Ornette is Clarke’s use of staged scenes to represent Coleman’s youth and young adulthood. Such scenes are commonplace today, particularly in television documentaries (History Channel, I’m looking at you!), and in fact they are practically as old as documentary film. Well-known early directors such as Edward S. Curtis and Robert Flaherty had no compunction about using actors and scripted scenes in their films, but this approach had fallen out of favor by the 1980s. Errol Morris attracted considerable attention when his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line relied heavily on reenactments, but Clarke beat him to the punch.

The sound and image quality on the Blu-ray are both great, and allow you to see what an original artist Clarke really was. Extras include liner notes by Kathelin Hoffman Gray, a Skype interview with Denardo Coleman (Coleman’s son and sometime drummer; 32 min.), a short film combining Clarke’s voice and image with a Felix the Cat cartoon (5 min.), a 1982 video interview with Clarke (58 min.), a 1986 radio interview interview about Ornette with Clarke (28 min.), and two trailers for the film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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