In the wake of La La Land it’s near impossible to watch anything about jazz and not think of Ryan Gosling and his attempts to “save” the dwindling auditory medium. John Scheinfeld’s documentary Chasing Trane is essential viewing, whether you enjoyed Damien Chazelle’s films or not, because it breaks down the jazz barrier by telling the story of a musical genius. As someone completely unfamiliar with Coltrane or his music, Chasing Trane isn’t just a master class in jazz history, but an introduction to an individual who overcame obstacles and, in many ways, doesn’t fall into the typical jazz stereotypes seen in narrative films like Miles Ahead or Born to Be Blue.
Chasing Trane is a tribute and biopic about jazz musician John Coltrane, a man with fierce passions that he turned into beautiful music.
Chasing Trane presents the broad strokes of the musician’s career: his childhood, marriages, experimentation with drugs, etc. This perfunctory attitude towards the narrative ends up allowing for a greater look at Coltrane as a human, and how others responded to him. As an old child, Coltrane saw music “as a life preserver,” that eventually segued into him becoming a musical genius. In many ways, the way director Scheinfeld presents Coltrane is how Coltrane looked at jazz itself, making the experimental popular by taking the popular and making it experimental. Listen to his rendition of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. By utilizing a piece of Americana he was able to build on the name recognition and open people’s ears to something they hadn’t heard before. He was the ultimate remake artist!
Filled to bursting with a who’s who of talking heads – everyone from Common to John Densmore to former President Bill Clinton – each person is there to illustrate Coltrane’s legacy. However, the ones who stand out are those who knew Coltrane, the man. People like Jimmy Heath, who, admittedly, were into the same drug scene as Coltrane, but were able to understand him as a performer. The inclusion of his children, both biological and adopted, gives a clearer view of the man behind the saxophone. There’s a moment where his stepdaughter Antonia recounts his “cold turkey” withdrawal from heroin. She recount, as a young girl, praying for God to not take the only father she’d ever known. Scheinfeld cracks the emotional center of Coltrane, removing the tough, iconoclastic shell of a performer whose work is so ubiquitous to us now. It’s trite to say he was a man, a father, and a musician, but that’s what Chasing Trane does so well. A third-act divergence into one Japanese man’s desire to collect Coltrane merchandise does feel at odds with the personal narrative of Coltrane’s own life.
Outside of the requisite concert footage is the living exhibition that is Scheinfeld’s presentation of photography and news footage. A divergence into Coltrane’s writing of the painful “Alabama,” a tribute to the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing, is an expert blending of personal and national history. The photographs he assembles are a mix of the intimate and the professional, the at-home and the on the road, all of which would do well in a museum.
The most surprising element of Chasing Trane is how Coltrane’s life wasn’t like that of his forebears. Several friends of Coltrane, and fellow band members, cite Charlie Parker as the representative of the jazz musician snuffed out too soon – his death at the age of 34 wasn’t helped by advanced drug use. Coltrane dabbled with heroin, in as much as one can use without overdosing. But Parker’s death acted as a wake-up call and from there drugs were something he avoided. In the end, it’s a shame he still died as young as he did of liver cancer, which, in the world of jazz biopics, is about as peaceful a death as one gets; in fact, his wife called his death “Beautiful,” for reasons her daughter can’t explain.
Adding personality to everything is Denzel Washington, acting as Coltrane’s voice. Alongside the evocative music, Chasing Trane wraps you in a hypnotic, jazz-influenced embrace you won’t want to escape. I can’t say it made me a jazz lover, but I walked away from Chasing Trane with both a greater awareness of the power of the medium, one man’s love for that medium, and how he, in turn, influenced a generation of new musicians with it.