In “Chasing the Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary,” documentarian John Scheinfeld shows that the music of one of jazz’s most experimental saxophone players still speaks to audiences today.
Born in Hamlet, N.C., in 1926, Coltrane at first struggled to find his voice. In an early recording, he can be heard mimicking the signature flurry of notes of jazz giant Charlie Parker, but without Parker’s confidence or a sound of his own. By the time he was hired by trumpet player Miles Davis – notably appearing on Davis’s landmark 1959 album “Kind of Blue” – Coltrane’s soulful, spiritual tone was immediately recognizable.
Unique yet accessible, Coltrane’s sound led to both critical and commercial success, exemplified by his 1961 version of “My Favorite Things,” from “The Sound of Music.” In Coltrane’s challenging interpretation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard, the song ran nearly 14 minutes, intensifying the emotional power of the original.
Scheinfeld concisely maps out Coltrane’s life and career, using archival performance footage and home movies, along with more recent interviews with such former bandmates and musical peers as pianist McCoy Tyner and tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Former President Bill Clinton even makes an appearance, among Coltrane’s many fans.
In the end, it’s the music, and not the testimonials, that makes the movie. At the height of his fame, Coltrane pushed himself – and his fans – in directions that tasked even the most adventurous listeners, pursuing a wildly experimental sound that some considered shrieking. (At the same time, his intentions were clear from such titles as “Peace on Earth.”)
Coltrane succumbed to liver cancer in 1967 at age 40, but his music endures. As guitarist Carlos Santana, one of Coltrane’s fans, puts it, Coltrane didn’t limit himself to one musical genre. Rather, Santana says, “He played life.”
Chasing the Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
Director: John Scheinfeld
Length: 99 minutes
Rating: Unrated (contains some disturbing archival footage)