Blu-ray Review: Ornette: Made in America

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The final feature film by documentarian Shirley Clarke, Ornette: Made in America focuses on the art of jazz icon Ornette Coleman. Released in 1986, the film actually has roots in an unfinished project Clarke began in the ‘60s. While we do see footage shot in 1968 of a much younger Coleman with his son Denardo (then 12, already a budding jazz drummer), most of the feature centers on the opening of the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in Fort Worth Texas in September, 1983. Coleman performed his orchestral jazz composition “Skies of America” and was honored with a key to the city. Apparently, this key was a copy of one that had travelled to the moon. This leads to some understandable confusion amongst Coleman’s bandmates, who are heard discussing whether or not this particular key had been to the moon. Why even mention that something is a replica of an item that was taken to the moon anyway?

It’s one of many head-scratching moments in this daring documentary. Don’t come to Ornette looking for a conventional filmed biography of the saxophonist and his pioneering Free Jazz movement. In fact, the form and editing of Clarke’s work is experimental and non-linear. Her subject is fascinating and perplexing, which is why the film works best during the stretches in which Coleman is allowed to simply speak. At its least successful, we see some re-enactments of Coleman’s youth (featuring actors acting awkwardly). There are a couple of, for lack of a better term, music videos that are now dated in terms of their pre-Video Toaster-era post-production effects (some tracers during a videogame-inspired sequence are particularly ineffective).

Discussion covers a wide variety of topics. Of course there’s a fair amount of talk about jazz amongst the participants, including Coleman collaborators Ed Blackwell, Don Cherry, and aforementioned son Denardo. We also hear appraisals from music writers Robert Palmer and John Rockwell. But the subjects discussed go well beyond music, with architect Buckminster Fuller speaking about his geodesic domes (one of which graced the roof of the Caravan of Dreams center). Writer William S. Burroughs makes an appearance as part of the Caravan of Dreams opening. By the time we listen to Coleman matter-of-factly discussing his attempt to get castrated by his doctor, no one could be blamed for wondering what the hell they’re watching.

When Coleman speaks, about his desire to be castrated or anything else for that matter, he sounds as if he could be a character who escaped from a David Lynch film. He’s not particularly articulate as he explains his personal views and philosophies. How he thought castration would benefit him is difficult to ascertain (apparently he only sought to attract female attention if it was due to his musical prowess, rather than anything sexually-motivated). His doctor suggested circumcision as a form of “symbolic castration” (huh?), for which the then-30something Coleman ultimately settled. It’s all part of what makes Coleman such a puzzle. While absorbing, it’s a good thing there’s plenty of his music featured throughout Clarke’s film. The focus generally remains on Coleman’s artistry.

Ornette: Made in America naturally shows its age (or ages, rather, considering it was sourced from footage shot over a long period of time), but it looks great on Milestone Films’ Blu-ray. The material shot in the early ‘80s looks best (Clarke refers to it being shot on Super16 in an interview included in the supplements), though some of it was doctored in post (by Clarke) with various SD effects. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack allows the music to be heard with great clarity. The fidelity of the interview segments is quite strong as well.

Of several supplemental features included, the most interesting is a 1986 radio interview with Shirley Clarke. For about a half hour, Clarke relates stories pertaining specifically to Coleman and her film. That’s, of course, an audio-only feature, but there’s an hour-long video interview with Clarke as well. This goes into her background and personal life. “The Link Revisited” is another half-hour piece, this time an interview with drummer Denardo Coleman. “Shirley Loves Felix” is a five-minute oddity featuring Clarke sitting in front of a projected Felix the Cat cartoon while speaking about her love for the character (we also see the animated short without Clarke commenting about it). There is also a pair of trailers for Ornette.

Ornette: Made in America, it should go without saying, has much more to offer than mentioned above—it really has to be experienced. Shirley Clarke’s exploratory, endlessly inventive style is the antithesis of the Ken Burns’ approach seen in Jazz. That’s not a knock against the more traditional form; Burns is generally aiming to inform. Clarke is aiming to provoke thought here and for the open-minded viewer, that is exactly what is likely to occur.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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