EuroArts // 1990 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // May 5th, 2010
Innovative, influential, and strongly revered.
The World According to John Coltrane is a very good musical portrait. It is rather skimpy, however, as a personal biography. You'll get a fairly comprehensive picture of Coltrane the jazz musician but you won't learn anything about Coltrane the man. That's not a fatal omission -- there's just too much good music here -- but it does make The World According to John Coltrane, which originally aired in Europe in 1990, feel incomplete.
Of course, for many jazz fans, the good music will suffice because Coltrane stands alongside Miles Davis and Charlie Parker as one of the titans of post-World War II jazz. It was Coltrane who popularized the idea of incorporating non-Western music into jazz standards and thus opened up a style that would later become known as "free jazz." His cover of cutesy The Sound of Music song "My Favorite Things" would, in almost any other hands, simply have become a pleasant little pop tune. Coltrane turned it into a whirling kaleidoscope of Indian drones, African drums, and torrid sax solos that bore almost no resemblance to the original. He was also an accomplished composer. After watching the bloody racial violence that racked the South in the '60s, he composed the haunting and beautiful "Alabama." He would also pour all of his influences and talents into his acknowledged masterpiece, the album-length suite A Love Supreme (1965), one of the most evocative and powerful jazz standards ever written.
The World According to John Coltrane discusses in detail, how Coltrane made his remarkable music. Friends of Coltrane, as well as his widow Alice (a respected jazz musician in her own right), talk about his insatiable musical curiosity. They describe how Coltrane would listen to all kinds of music, from classical to world, and find sounds and ideas to incorporate into his music. They describe how he played in the bands of two jazz legends -- Davis and Thelonius Monk -- while still finding time to lead his own band. Jazz masters Wayne Shorter (of Weather Report) and Jimmy Heath discuss Coltrane's influence on their music while minimalist composer LaMonte Young explains how many modern classical composers used Coltrane's ideas more than those of any other artist of any genre. All of this is accompanied by some extraordinary performance footage of Coltrane that doesn't always look so great but is so historically important that its quality is forgivable. There's Coltrane playing "So What" with Miles Davis, Coltrane blasting through "My Favorite Things" in front of a crowd that's initially stupefied but gradually erupts into applause, and Coltrane working out the basic melody of "Alabama." Just for this footage alone, The World According to John Coltrane is recommended.
As good as the program is, it feels incomplete. Consider that the only pieces of biographical information about Coltrane that it gives are that he was born in 1926 and died in 1967. You won't learn how he met Alice, when they were married, for how long, or even what instrument she plays (piano). In a particularly glaring omission, the fact that Coltrane was addicted to heroin for most of his adult life and that that probably led to his death isn't mentioned once. It's understandable that the program wants to deal strictly with Coltrane's music without stooping to sensationalism, but this is just overkill. These are only some of the important events in Coltrane's life that presumably had an impact on his music, so to completely leave them out is ridiculous. Even the most neophyte Coltrane buff will notice how many holes and unanswered questions there are here.
Technically, the disc is acceptable. The full-screen transfer looks a bit soft and hazy on the interview footage, while some of the archival footage looks rather rough. Nonetheless, there's nothing truly unwatchable here. The PCM mono track sounds satisfactory as well, with no major flaws to speak of. There are no extras.
In any event, The World According to John Coltrane has way too much good music to pass up. Anyone interested in jazz should give it a look and enjoy the remarkable performances it contains, but viewers who are looking to understand how Coltrane's life affected his music will find it unsatisfying. Musically, it's spectacular, but emotionally it should have been much better.
Guilty of incompleteness but let off with a fine by virtue of great music.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* PCM 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* John Coltrane Official Site