Constructed around pre-existing footage of the legendary jazz pianist and composer, THELONIOUS MONK: STRAIGHT NO CHASER is a lively and loving tribute to the genius of Thelonious Monk. Co-producer Bruce Ricker acquired footage of Monk that noted documentarians Michael and Christian
Blackwood shot in 1968 as Monk prepared for a world tour. Ricker, working with filmmaker Charlotte Zwerin, brackets this footage with original interviews and additional archival materials to tell Monk's story.
Monk was born in 1917, a native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. As a boy, he came with his family to New York City, where he was exposed to such music luminaries as Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. As a young musician, Monk, along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, innovated the be-bop form
of jazz. While African-American audiences responded immediately to the independence, pride, and strength in Monk's music, years would pass before Monk would be appreciated more broadly. An engagement with John Coltrane resulted in a new popularity that brought Monk into great demand. Monk's
recognition reached its zenith when he was featured on the cover of TIME.
Monk was tormented throughout his adult life by a manic-depressive disorder, and he was hospitalized on several occasions. His wife, Nellie, supported him through these difficult periods, and she is now credited with the development of his talent. Monk, in turn, composed "Crepuscule with Nellie"
for her. In 1968, Monk embarked upon a world tour. Although he was nervous that the first concert, in London, would be a failure due to lack of preparation, the engagement was a smash. Through the remainder of the tour, Monk was met by enthusiastic fans and press. Upon his return to New York City,
he met with his friend and patron, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, for whom Monk also composed a piece, "Pannonica." Beset by illness, Monk ceased playing in the mid-1970s, and died on February 17, 1982 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
The most valuable facet of STRAIGHT NO CHASER is the fantastic black-and-white material shot by the Blackwoods. This exquisite footage--contrasty, black-and-white imagery that corresponds ideally to Monk's intuitive, improvisational method of playing--captures Monk at both his most inspired and
most relaxed. Monk is shown in concert, composing pieces or rehearsing in a sound studio, anxiously hanging around airports or green rooms, greeting eager fans, or joking around backstage with friends and band members. Ricker and Zwerin show proper respect for Monk and his talent by leaving this
material mostly intact. Excerpts endure for minutes at a time, uninterrupted by explanatory comments from contemporary interviews or interpretive voice-over narration. This is especially true of the invaluable performance footage, in which the majesty of Monk speaks for itself. The duration of
these excerpts allows an immersion in Monk's music, and provides an extended look at Monk's piano-playing technique.
The material shot originally for STRAIGHT NO CHASER is comparatively ordinary. The biographical material is presented in a conventional manner, with facts of Monk's life recounted by a narrator over a selection of stills and newsreel footage. The interviews, with Monk's band members, business
associates, and relatives, are conducted in the standard talking-head format, and tell less about the man than the Blackwoods' observational footage does.
The appeal of STRAIGHT NO CHASER is probably limited to jazz aficionados, and it does little to induce those who are not already familiar with Monk or his style of music to learn about what they've been missing. But in its understanding of Monk and its intelligent handling of the Blackwood
footage, STRAIGHT NO CHASER really does succeed in presenting Monk is a straight, potent, and undiluted fashion. (Profanity.)
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- Released: 1988
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Constructed around pre-existing footage of the legendary jazz pianist and composer, THELONIOUS MONK: STRAIGHT NO CHASER is a lively and loving tribute to the genius of Thelonious Monk. Co-producer Bruce Ricker acquired footage of Monk that noted documentar… (more)