Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On DVD: "Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo"

You know what Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo could use? A good editor. This free-form documentary portrait is basically two different films fighting for screen time: one good, a compilation of performance clips and home movies from Ellington’s 1968 tour of Mexico, and one bad, a recent gathering of friends, family, and admirers in celebration of the late jazzman’s birthday. The first film is fascinating, handsome, and enjoyable; the second amounts to a home movie, with both the production value and outside interest that such a phrase brings to mind.

To his credit, director Gary Keys does not construct Reminiscing in Tempo as a straight-up biographical film; it is more impressionistic, flitting from one theme to the next (religion, civil rights, musicianship, image). The group of fans and collaborators, assembled by Ellington’s sister Ruth Ellington Boatwright, share stories and memories; some of the subjects are insightful, while others are dull or obvious, speaking in platitudes. There’s no selectivity—everything makes it in.

Many of those at his party are musicians, so they take the opportunity to perform his songs, with varying degrees of success. What is irritating about these sequences is that Keys often cuts away from his priceless archival footage of Ellington at work in order to show us someone else doing that song. You keep wanting Keys to just let the clips play—why would anyone thing we’d rather watch an admirer play one of Duke’s songs, if it means cutting away from the man himself?

Early on, the performance clips are agonizingly short. However, after the first 20 or so minutes (which are an utter chore to get through) the clips become much more prominent, and the film markedly improves. It becomes something of a memoir/travelogue of the Ellington Orchestra’s ’68 Mexico trip, constructed primarily around an extended performance of the rare “Mexican Suite.” It is a wonderful piece, and Keys is wise enough to let it play all the way through—though he does interject quick bits of narration, some helpful, some not so much (we probably don’t need the 1968 history lesson, complete with MLK, RFK, and Carlos and Smith’s Black Power salute). Some later performances (such as his iconic “Take the A Train”) run more or less intact, but the film keeps getting in its own way, with a long, poorly recorded and decidedly mediocre modern performance of “Come Sunday” towards the end, and a final clip of a wonderful, talked-up rendition “Satin Doll” that is jarringly intercut with wrap-up interview snippets.

Fans of Duke Ellington (and of classic jazz, period) will want to see Reminiscing in Tempo for the archival performances, which are not to be missed. But the decidedly poor quality of the new footage—from both a technical and narrative standpoint—puts a drag on the entire enterprise; if Keys would’ve stuck to the vintage stuff, he’d have really had something here.

"Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo" is available now on DVD. For full A/V details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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