Picks and Pans Review: Straight, No Chaser

updated 10/30/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/30/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

A Documentary on Thelonious Monk

As a personality study, this documentary is often fascinating even if it does little to explain the enigma that was Monk, who died in 1982 at age 64.

The footage, most of which was shot by filmmakers Michael and Christian Blackwood for West German Television in 1967 and 1968 and only recently discovered by Bruce Ricker (this movie's co-producer), shows the jazz pianist as shy, nervous and stubbornly uncommunicative. He seems so filled with edgy energy that during his sidemen's solos he would at times get up and trundle around the stage in what seemed half somnambulistic stumble and half dance (the step was something like what a hippo with a refined sense of rhythm might do).

Part of the material added for this film by director Charlotte Zwerin is an interview with Monk's son, Thelonious Jr., who speaks lovingly of his dad but also says, "It's a startling thing to look your father in the eye and know he isn't exactly sure who you are."

Zwerin similarly tiptoes around Monk's long relationship with the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, which co-existed with his long marriage to Nellie Monk. De Koenigswarter is among those Zwerin interviewed, but she offers no insights into his behavior—or even how she felt about their relationship.

Nor does Zwerin talk to such contemporaries—and fellow innovators in jazz—as Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach or John Lewis to get their perspective on Monk's music. (Monk's saxophone player, Charlie Rouse, is the only musician who is interviewed.) The performance footage captured by the Blackwoods includes a succession of striking solos punched out by Monk with a deliberate, meticulous touch and a palpable sense of concentration. He seems vibrantly alive and engaged when he's playing, his elbows spread, his hands darting at the keys from crazy angles, his right foot pawing out surprising rhythms.

This film is filled with exhilarating music, but it ends with his performance of Art Fritch, Kay Fitch and Bert Lowe's "Sweetheart of All My Dreams." Ordinarily a very romantic song, it is played by Monk with such bitterness and anger that the music comes out as an ironic curse. This, clearly, was no ordinary musician, and no ordinary man. (Unrated)

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