Behind the Scenes with Thelonious Monk in “Rewind & Play”

The premise of Alain Gomis’s “Rewind & Play” is as exciting as the film itself. While doing research for a fictional film about Thelonious Monk, Gomis gained access to the rushes—the unedited raw footage, including outtakes—for a documentary about Monk that had been made for French television. (The footage was shot in December, 1969, and the half-hour-long film, “Jazz Portrait: Thelonious Monk,” was broadcast in 1970.) “Rewind & Play,” which opens Friday at BAM, is an hour-long reëdit of this footage, much of it unreleased until now, and it’s a remarkable film at many levels.

First, the resulting portraiture of Monk, who speaks much more and is seen in much fuller interaction with the filmmakers, is far more detailed and complex. Second, the previously unpublished footage reveals much about the making of the original documentary, because what was excluded is even more significant than what was broadcast. Third, what Gomis discovers about the filmmakers’ practice offers a revelatory and cautionary view of documentary filmmaking as such. Finally, the footage is a treasure trove of Monk in performance, and its presentation of the pianist’s mighty inspirations suggests an artist at a peak of his career, but the truth of the matter is far different, and far more disturbing.

There’s history—personal and musical—embedded in “Rewind & Play.” It furnishes the movie with its key moment, one that is mentioned in every review I’ve seen and that is so emblematic that Gomis uses its key phrase—“It’s not nice?”—as the film’s subtitle. The roots of that moment go back almost sixteen years. In 1954, Henri Renaud, himself a professional jazz pianist, met Monk in New York and arranged for him to be invited to perform in the Paris Jazz Festival, which ran in the first week of June. In “Rewind & Play,” Renaud—the host and interviewer, as well as co-director—says as much, on camera, and asks Monk whether the Paris audiences found his playing “too avant-garde”; Monk dubiously wonders what Renaud is getting at; the interviewer repeats the question. Monk responds that he was promoted as the star of the festival, yet he “wasn’t getting the money.” Renaud tells the co-director, Bernard Lion, in French, to “erase” that passage, then repeats the question. Monk answers again, more specifically: he discovered that he was very popular in France but, unlike the other American musicians who were flown over, Gerry Mulligan and Jonah Jones, he wasn’t allowed to bring his own accompanying musicians with him, and had trouble getting local musicians to play with him. He adds, “I was getting less money than anybody.” Renaud dutifully translates—and then, again, tells Lion to erase this answer, too, because it’s “désobligeant”—derogatory.

Monk didn’t speak much French, but he clearly sensed that something was up; he rises from the piano bench and leaves the frame. Renaud guides him back in; Monk appears upset, and suggests they forget about the program and just go to dinner. Instead, Renaud coaxes Monk to the keyboard and asks him to play. Monk returns to the subject of his earlier Paris visit; Renaud tells him they’ll skip the subject, and Monk, bewildered, asks, “It’s no secrets, is it?” “No,” Renaud responds, “but it’s not nice.” Monk, bewildered, throws back at him “It’s not nice?” His sardonic smile and tone suggest that he now considers Renaud a stooge and the program a sham in which he’s merely meant to coöperate with docility. From that point on, Monk does his job, handling Renaud’s softball questions with more graciousness than they merit—and then he does his real work, playing the piano.

Needless to say, these exchanges aren’t included in the 1970 film “Jazz Portrait.” There’s almost no dialogue between the two men—Monk hardly speaks. That documentary mainly features Monk playing solo piano, punctuated by Renaud’s brisk and superficial overview of Monk’s career along with photos and archival documents. Its main merit is in its presentation of performance. But it does so in the abstract, treating Monk’s music in isolation from the practical and material conditions of its production—conditions that Monk, in a potent couple of phrases, offered Renaud and the world, and that Renaud and Lion saw fit to suppress.

In “Rewind & Play,” Gomis does more than reveal the discussion that didn’t see the light of day in 1970; he reveals the cinematic methods by which the fabricated and tailored view of Monk’s life and work were crafted. Not only does Renaud repeat questions to Monk (including other, anodyne or trivial ones) in the hope of getting an answer crafted to his specifications, he also appears on camera alone, in Monk’s total absence, feigning the posing of a question and the listening to an answer. His monologues about Monk’s career are delivered from the same position—standing at or leaning on the piano—in which he questions Monk, as if to simulate their delivery in Monk’s presence. What Renaud and Lion are doing is nothing unusual, and that is the point.

It is inconceivable that the great documentary filmmakers, whether Frederick Wiseman or Claire Simon, Rosine Mbakam or the Maysles brothers, Garrett Bradley or Robert Greene, Sara Fattahi or Khalik Allah, would coax participants to repeat answers until they sounded right or fabricate their own presence amid subjects who are absent. But Renaud’s practices are common coin in the documentary industry, where information takes precedence over experience and packaging is more important than discovery. If mediocre dramatic features debase emotional life, mediocre documentaries—the unreality of reality television, the dominance of heavily formatted and drama-driven streaming-service documentaries—degrade and diminish the notion of nonfiction. In dispensing bits and pieces of prefabricated information, they deny and negate the very power of the cinema to illuminate experience at large.

Paradoxically, the fabrications that went into the making of “Jazz Portrait” have one fundamental merit: the bulk of the 1970 film shows Monk playing, and brilliantly. The punctuations by Renaud, though insignificant and nearly trivial in their content, are at least brief. Robin D. G. Kelley, in his 2009 biography of Monk (to my mind, one of the greatest books about jazz ever written), writes of “Jazz Portrait” that Monk “plays beautifully”; he also adds, “the camera catches Thelonious smiling. He may not have understood most of Renaud’s French, but he knew he was being treated with respect.” Monk’s smiles turn out to have been of a different sort. As for respect, Renaud’s disregard for the truth of Monk’s experience is at least balanced by his emphasis on Monk’s playing, which is presented at length and without interruption by voice-overs or other audiovisual miscellanea.

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