Not recommended for viewers prone to epilepsy, this stroboscopic documentary celebrates the variegated career of recording artist/arranger and film composer Quincy Jones.
Sort of an oral history on film, the entire narrative unfolds in a punchy collage of interview snippets offered by Jones and his illustrious contemporaries. Often several points of view come out at once, backed by stock footage. Jones was born in Chicago and grew up in rough neighborhoods, his
childhood marred by crime and a mother committed to a mental institution while his father remarried. From age 12, Quincy determined to be a musician, once stowing away in Lionel Hampton's tour bus. But the boy ended up getting a proper education, then entered the New York jazz scene. Jones recalls
when he and his troupe, looking like fools in Tyrolean hats and costumes for a gig, wandered into a gathering of legends like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, who couldn't have thought much of the newcomer. Touring the Carolinas with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Jones saw
American racism firsthand ("We always had a white driver; that's the only way we could eat," says Dizzy). In a subsequent overseas tour, however, Jones thrived in the color-blind societies of Europe (even though audiences didn't always seem to understand the point of modern jazz). Under Jones's
management, however, the group went bankrupt.
Jones rebounded, freelancing as an arranger and building a reputation in the record industry. Composing for Sidney Lumet's THE PAWNBROKER (1965) was Jones's illustrious entry into cinema, but despite a relocation to Los Angeles (abandoning his first wife), things went slowly for a few years. Then
came the electrifying soundtracks for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and IN COLD BLOOD (1967), TV themes for "Sanford and Son," "Ironside," and "Roots," and album work with Sinatra, Streisand, Herbie Hancock, and eventually Michael Jackson. Soon Jones was accumulating more Grammy Awards than any other
pop-music recording artist. But the overwork took its toll in the form of a brain aneurism that required a series of operations, followed by a disoriented period reminscent of his mother's madness. His third wife, "Mod Squad" actress Peggy Lipton, helped nurse Jones back to health. They
subsequently divorced. In addition, Jones's many extended family members, contemporaries, and friends (including the Rev. Jesse Jackson) pay him fond tribute.
When Jones describes cranial surgery in which his head was opened "like an egg," one better understands LISTEN UP's kaleidoscope approach. The neurologically damaged Jones just isn't the most coherent narrator, and director Weissbrod must defer to a celebrity lineup of colleagues, splicing a
syncopated symphony of superstar sound bites. Nearly everyone is photographed by Stephen Kazmierski in dramatic chiaroscuro darkness worthy of a magazine layout (Michael Jackson, at the point in his own career when weirdness was subverting a wholesome public image, wants the lights extinguished
altogether), and LISTEN UP certainly has the visual dynamism of a music video, although at feature length the technique verges on bombast. Initially, the production verges on hagiography, with an opening medly of rappers and cameos from Ice-T to Mr. T (no relation) glorifying Jones and his
up-from-the-ghetto success and messiah-like status as he continues to fight for justice against the Apartheid system in South Africa, and tells African-American street kids not to give in to rioting and despair but put their energies into creativity (one wonders if the gangsta rappers surrounding
Jones here are part of the solution or part of the problem). Only later does LISTEN UP go deeper into its subject's moral shadings, as Jones's adult children (particularly daughter Jolie) remember a well-intentioned but workaholic father who was seldom there for them. Jones himself, scars on his
forehead standing out like a painful road map of his life, seems genuinely pained at the hurt daughters and wrecked marriages behind him, and despite lame defenses offered by his chorus of apologists ("Quincy would love to be in love with everybody," "Quincy is a spray gun of love"--thank Steven
Spielberg for that last one) this part of the picture most resembles a documentary riff on Bob Fosse's acid self-portrait ALL THAT JAZZ, and that's meant as serious praise. LISTEN UP may itself resemble a spray gun, but it resists whitewashing a complex man. (Profanity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1990
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Not recommended for viewers prone to epilepsy, this stroboscopic documentary celebrates the variegated career of recording artist/arranger and film composer Quincy Jones. Sort of an oral history on film, the entire narrative unfolds in a punchy collage of… (more)