Clash of Sensibilities in Thelonious Monk Jazz Documentary Rewind & Play | IFI French Film Festival

Primary among the pleasures of filming musicians at work is the possibility of looking in on otherwise unseen technical exercises. Watching music is as invigorating as hearing it played. Exemplary in this is footage of bands working through problems of composition. If Godard’s One Plus One should be remembered for anything, it should be for capturing the Rolling Stones watching each other play their parts in recording “Sympathy for the Devil.” Playing in isolation, the band nonetheless gathers to watch and to listen.

This desire to watch musicians attaches itself with particular affinity to styles of music typified by extended passages of improvisation. Groups like the Grateful Dead function as a unit while simultaneously giving space to flights of individual, technical ecstasy. Here, players collectively watch, listen, and feel one another in ways that appear to me, a non-musician, as purely mystical. No body of music embodies this spirit more fully than jazz. It is the absence of watching and listening, Jonathan Rosenbaum argues, where many jazz films fail. There is a misplaced documentary impulse which insists on speaking over the music, to likewise cut and rearrange the real work of musicianship. This is all the more prevalent where the performer in question is monumental. Alain Gomis counterposes this tendency by radically challenging the apparatus of sound and image.

Rewind & Play is composed of outtakes and b-roll of Thelonious Monk’s trip to Paris in December 1969. At the end of his European tour, Monk was asked to play on and be interviewed for a television documentary hosted by Jazz pianist turned TV executive Henri Renaud. From the opening images, Monk cuts an iconic figure. That he mostly sits silently while off-screen voices chatter only adds to his stature. However, it is just this that Gomis challenges. Rewind & Play is run through by a flurry of voices, mostly unseen and uniformly condescending in their superficiality. The most visually prominent figure becomes not Monk, the ostensible subject of the programme, but Renaud.

Henri Renaud is quick to point out that he has visited Monk in his home. He does this in translating a terse response to one in a series of inane (non-)questions: What is the name of this tune; When did you start playing piano; Why did you put a piano in your kitchen? The latter a query whose answer is constitutive of the question, Renaud having already told his audience (in French) that the kitchen was the only room big enough. It is in translation that Renaud exerts his influence over proceedings. He first translates his questions to Monk into English. Then, rather than simply rendering Monk’s replies into French, he launches into personal anecdotes and prepared biographical sketches. Monk sits as though under glass – a prisoner in himself, of his fame.

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Crucial as Gomis proceeds is the degree to which he reveals the televisual apparatus. There are glimpses into certain technical aspects of documentary filmmaking, such as the mounting of photographs by a second unit (thereby pinning in image in place, making it static for the camera). We hear someone, presumably the director of the programme, stating they want the set to look as though Monk were playing live despite taking place on an empty soundstage. Renaud repeats several questions not because he cannot get an answer, but because he was not happy with his presentation.

Most striking is the discarded footage. Monk is at one point asked about his first trip to France, where he performed as a special guest of the Paris Jazz Festival. He first responds that, despite being on the cover of the festival flyer, he was paid less than other performers. Renaud asks that this take be erased. Take two: same question. Monk adds that he was not allowed to fly his band over for the festival and, furthermore, had difficulties finding French musicians good enough to play for him. This whole segment is scrapped because it is, in Renaud’s own words, “derogatory.” When Monk presses him on this, challenges him, in fact, that there should be no secrets, Renaud can only wave him away: “but it’s not nice.”

Monk refuses to be made static for the camera, not because he is difficult, not because he is camera-shy, but because he is a working musician. What stands between Monk and the presenter is cultural (existential, even), not linguistic. That Renaud became a television executive suggests something of the world he chose to inhabit. The world of television is one where things are made nice, where experiences are smoothed over into appearances. An empty soundstage is a world away from the recording studio, let alone Minton’s or the Five Spot. Against the sterile packaging of television (and everything that can take this place) stands the artist, properly conceived.

Gomis demonstrates how visual media manufacture images. There is a Thelonious Monk that a French television programme sought to pin against the board. After the interview, Renaud re-records his questions in Monk’s absence. He receives directions, acting against an empty stool, to a camera, for an audience to come. Gomis, in a bravura sequence, intercuts these vacuous images with a performance of “’Round Midnight.” The final word is given to Monk in communion with his instrument. There are no other performers with whom he must interact. Among everything else, with Rewind & Play, Gomis recovers a document of stunning musical virtuosity. With Monk at the keyboard, the rest of the set, the world, dissipates.

Rewind & Play will be screened on Monday the 20th of November as part of the IFI French Film Festival 2023.

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