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Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus - A Robert Mugge Film

Now on DVD
from Acorn Media!


Click Here to View: TrailerDirector's CommentaryG-ManMovement #5




February 21-22, 2009

Two '80s Film Flashbacks

Sonny Rollins and Al Green Documentaries, New on DVD

By Will Friedwald

When Robert Mugge's documentaries "Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus" (1986) and "Gospel According to Al Green" (1984) were made, they were intended as a permanent record of two seminal musicians at a very specific point in their careers. The central figures themselves had axes to grind: Sonny Rollins -- and even more so, his manager and wife, Lucille -- wanted to silence the critics and fans who insisted that his contemporary work was inferior to his classic albums of the '50s and '60s; Al Green was compelled to explain to the world why he gave up singing pop music and devoted his life to spreading God's word.

Today, those particular points don't matter as much as they once did. Mr. Rollins is treated as a living legend, whose every performance, young and old, is rightfully cherished; Mr. Green himself made another career change and since the mid-1990s has been performing secular as well as sacred music, knowing full well that audiences will accept him no matter what he sings.

But these two films, newly released on DVD by Acorn Media, hold up well as vital profiles of their subjects at turning points in their lives, each combining a concert film with a journalistic backstory. They also remind us how much the genre has changed in the past two decades, a period of ever-shortening attention spans. When Mr. Mugge made these documentaries (both of which exceed 1½ hours in length, with not a minute wasted), it didn't seem like too much to ask an audience to watch a man play a sax for 10 minutes straight.

"Saxophone Colossus," which takes its title from Mr. Rollins's celebrated 1956 album, begins with the musician talking about how he prepares for a performance; although it isn't exactly through "meditating," he does drop that word, and both of Mr. Mugge's films are extended meditations on one man's contributions to music.

The filmmaker and his camera crew capture Mr. Rollins in performance at two events. At the first, he and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra play the "Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra," Mr. Rollins's collaboration with the Finnish arranger-composer-conductor Heikki Saramanto. In the accompanying commentary, the director explains that he thought the work might become a jazz classic on the level of John Coltrane's suite "A Love Supreme." Instead, the concerto -- though it's a fascinating piece, which includes one movement that sounds inspired by Aaron Copland and another by Caribbean music -- sank into obscurity. It has never been issued on CD.

The other concert included in "Saxophone Colossus" is an August 1986 date in a rock quarry converted into a performance space. Mr. Mugge's intention was to show the high level at which Mr. Rollins performs even at a bread-and-butter gig with his regular working band (including trombonist Clifton Anderson and bassist Bob Cranshaw, who are still with him today).

Less than a half hour in, Mr. Rollins plays a short, unaccompanied medley of several themes, including "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," and then jumps off the stage. Apparently, he was frustrated by the sound of his tenor sax -- which had changed since it was relacquered. He was intending to head into the outdoor audience, and to play among them like a strolling musician. He hits the ground with such force that his heel bone snaps, and he lies down on the stone, flat on his back. Then, still horizontal, he begins to play "Autumn Nocturne," with neither the audience nor the band realizing that a bone is actually broken in his foot. In the days before tiny video cameras and cellphone photography, this was an extraordinary slice of reality to capture on film.

* * *

"Gospel According to Al Green" is driven by the irresistible, almost aggressive charisma of its central figure (who won two more Grammy Awards earlier this month). Not only does the Rev. Al Green exude the same energy when singing of love for a woman or love for Jesus, but he acknowledges no difference between preaching in a Baptist church, addressing an audience in a night club, or being interviewed by Mr. Mugge in a recording studio. Whether a camera crew or a crowd of thousands is listening to him, he speaks as if he's talking to his most intimate friend.

His recounting of hearing the word from God that he must be born again is compelling enough to make even a nonbeliever get down on his knees. The story of how a vengeful ex-lover attacked him by throwing a cauldron of boiling hot grits on him, and then shot herself, is by turns both comic and tragic. There's a touching moment when his once and future producer, Willie Mitchell, tells of how their partnership ended when Mr. Green stopped singing pop songs. It is ironically underscored by their 1972 hit "Let's Stay Together."

But "Gospel According to Al Green," like "Saxophone Colossus," is ultimately driven by the music, which we get to hear at its proper length. Mr. Green describes gospel music as having "an electricity that's got nothin' to do with sex," but there's an overt sensuality to his performance here -- whether describing romantic or spiritual ecstasy. He makes it clear that both come from the same place in the heart.

Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz and other music for the Journal.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company.  All rights reserved.



May 2009

Saxophone Colossus (Acorn)

By Mike Joyce

Robert Mugge’s 1986 film Saxophone Colossus was widely hailed upon its release as essential viewing, not just for fans of jazz but for anyone even remotely interested in the creative process. The newest DVD incarnation, complete with Mugge’s recollections of the joys and challenges encountered during production, reaffirms the film’s many virtues.

Here, after all, is a documentary that, in addition to capturing Rollins in prime form, wielding his tenor in ways that have elicited hosannas from fans and critics alike for decades on end, examines the saxophonist’s methodical approach to performing and improvising. Practice alone may take some musicians to Carnegie Hall, but as Rollins tells Mugge at one point, meditation and visualization are a big part of his pre-concert regimen. Here we also see, during an outdoors concert filmed at the Opus 40 quarry garden in upstate New York, various aspects of Rollins’ persona onstage: the full-throated improviser who seems incapable of physically exhausting himself or depleting the wealth of his ideas; the gifted dramatist, skillfully balancing emotional tension and release; the unabashed entertainer, whimsically stringing together the familiar melodies that pop into his head. (This is also the storied concert in which Rollins jumps off a six-foot stage ledge, only to end up on his back with a broken heel. The misadventure, however, doesn’t prevent him from quickly resuming the performance, albeit in a supine position.)

The quintet concert footage is effectively juxtaposed with an ambitious, large-scale production: the world premiere of Rollins’ “Concerto For Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra,” performed in Tokyo by Rollins and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra. While it’s not as memorable as the small combo performances of “G-Man” and “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” the orchestral segment sheds light on Rollins’ diverse interests in composing and collaborating. Interspersed are vintage concert footage and chats with critics Gary Giddins, Ira Gitler and Francis Davis, who dutifully (and glowingly) opine, each providing insights and context, as does Rollins’ late wife and manager, Lucille. The final word belongs to Mugge, who gratefully dedicates the new release of this remarkable film in Lucille’s memory.

Reprinted with permission from JazzTimes


THE CITY PAPER (Nashville)

February 3, 2009

OnDVD: New releases spotlight Green, Rollins

By Ron Wynn

Acclaimed director Robert Mugge has excelled as a music documentarian over the past three decades. His productions have profiled both famous and obscure performers in numerous genres. The long list of exceptional Mugge productions include a pair of 1980s works on Al Green and Sonny Rollins that have just been reissued on DVD.

Gospel According to Al Green and Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (both Acorn Media) represent the finest filmed presentations ever done on these two giants of American music, and each blend insights and splendid, rare performance footage in a manner that distinguishes them from basic concert or documentary items.

Al Green had made the transition from soul matinee idol to hard-working minister by 1984, the year Mugge originally filmed Gospel According to Al Green. He talks extensively about the events that led to his abandoning that soul career, and also discusses the problems he experienced in establishing and maintaining his Memphis church.

For those skeptical about Green’s conversion, the DVD includes a marvelous example pastor Green, as he presents a rich sermon that combines biblical references, personal stories and occasional song inserts. The package also has several scenes from his church services, which sometimes extend for hours on Sunday mornings and afternoons.

But the DVD also showcases the masterful Green secular style, with excerpts from performances featuring magnificent renditions of classic hits like “Let’s Stay Together” as well as equally strong gospel numbers such as “Amazing Grace.”

Green addresses the demands of both stardom and the ministry with equal fervor, explaining that each demands an intensity and commitment that can be draining and debilitating.

Through a nearly 90-minute interview, viewers see sides of Green he’s never before or since revealed. The set is completed with the inclusion of the original theatrical trailer and Mugge’s reflections on the project.

As for Sonny Rollins, he began playing the saxophone as an 11-year-old and was working with Thelonious Monk before he was 18. His soaring, relentless solos and integrity as a performer have made him a beloved figure.

Rollins also has often walked away from the music scene when he felt his playing was getting stale or predictable, even at times when his work was extremely popular. Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus was filmed in 1986, only a year after he’d started recording and performing again following almost nine years out of the spotlight.

His DVD includes far more comments and conversation from Rollins (who’s never sought the spotlight) about his background and interests than usual. He goes into very specific detail about the importance of spirituality in his life and music, while dissecting his approach to improvisation and performance.

A song’s melody has always been what has most attracted Rollins to a composition, and his ability to hear alternative directions in a tune while exploring it and his experiments with song structure are displayed in wonderful footage of him teaming with a Japanese symphony orchestra in Tokyo and a smaller group in New York.

While not extensively or exclusively a concert film, Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus amply examines the Rollins musical method, while also giving fans vital insight into his interests and life away from the bandstand.

Reprinted with permission from The City Paper - Nashville's Online Source for Daily News



December 24, 2008

Gospel According to Al Green and Saxophone Colossus: The All Movie Guide Review

By Nathan Southern

This January will witness a very special event – the DVD reissue of two of the most brilliant music documentaries of the past quarter century, both by the gifted Robert Mugge: 1984’s Gospel According to Al Green, and 1986’s Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus. Acorn Media is handling the rereleases, with a number of supplements including directorial reflections by Mugge; these welcome additions do enrich the films, but more prominent is the supreme craftsmanship of both works themselves. I took a fresh look at these two modern classics over the weekend and felt particularly struck by how well they succeed in completely different arenas and with completely distinct voices – a testament to Mugge’s versatility and adaptability as a craftsperson.

Shot at the tail end of 1983, Gospel According to Al Green went into production about a decade after Green’s famous conversion to Pentecostalism, and six years after his purchase of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis and his temporary refusal to perform any of his soulful R&B hits again. Mugge intercuts several elements within the film: a shockingly candid and revelatory interview with Green, an impromptu recording session of the chart-topper “Let’s Stay Together” (with Green agreeing to set aside his secular music ban for the sake of Mugge’s cameras), a concert by Green at the Bolling Air Force Base and Noncommissioned Officer’s Club in honor of 1984 Black History Week, and a sermon at Green’s church.

Especially in its early stages, the documentary pulls its power from Green’s almost hypnotic and mesmeric music, which exerts an astonishing level of emotional pull toward the onscreen and offscreen audiences; few cinematic outings have captured this aspect of gospel music so beautifully. (Compare the film, for example, to other gospel documentaries that interrupt the flow and emotional throes of the music with frequent cutaways). Mugge avoids that error by courageously letting the audience observe the concert portions for extended periods of time (thus wisely trusting in his subject matter) and allowing the music to build, to such a degree that its overall emotional structure begins to mirror the emotional structure of one of Green’s Willie Mitchell-produced songs as described in an onscreen interview with Mitchell – a gradual build to crescendo: “I think a song should be like climbing a mountain… Start at the bottom and climb to the top.” Mugge employs a like narrative structure in the documentary itself.

Via the interviews with Green, Mugge also provides intimate observations of a fascinating character – it’s possible that we’ve never before witnessed an interview subject so animated by torrents of histrionic emotion – to such a degree that it pushes Green beyond the point of eccentricity, and makes him a source of endless curiosity. The film doesn’t shy away from the possibility that Green enjoys being a spectacle in and of himself, and Mugge, in fact, places his camera at exactly the right places to observe the contradictions of this superstar, who on the one hand projects very sincere devotion to his audiences and a very sincere belief in Christian music and the Christian gospel, and on the other hand grows visibly disinterested on those brief occasions when someone else takes center stage. Meanwhile, the film’s interview portions enable Green’s fascinating personal story to emerge and build, and the documentary achieves greatest profundity by establishing a link between the notorious crisis that pushed the singer to the edge (when a distraught girlfriend dumped boiling hot grits on him in the shower, then shot herself) and the reliance on a spiritual anchor as a coping device. Mugge ingeniously juxtaposes Green’s recollections of the “incident” with a concert performance of “Amazing Grace” featuring cathartic monologues that witness Green openly dealing, before an audience, with the tumult that befell him years earlier. More broadly, the film serves as a profound reflection on the link, historically, between secular soul music and African-American gospel music, and the extent to which the former is often used as a tool to enervate and shape the latter. Sans commentary, the film probes this intra-genre area gracefully, yet wordlessly.

Above all else, the film witnesses one of the greatest of all soul singers at the peak of his abilities and provides marvelous entertainment.

That can also be said of 1986’s Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus, though the emotional texture and narrative structure of this opus stand alone. Hard bop tenor saxophonist Rollins, regarded by many as the world’s greatest jazz improviser, made history by adapting the jazz stylings of Charlie Parker to his chosen instrument, but by the mid-late 1980s, Rollins’s wife-turned-manager, Lucille, felt concerned that his star might be fading, despite the fact that he was performing more brilliantly, at that point in his life, than at any other time. Mugge’s film was thus designed as a vehicle to reassert Rollins’s greatness, and on that level alone it succeeds wonderfully. The writer-director divides the bulk of the film between four elements: candid interviews with Rollins and his wife, an August 1986 performance with a small jazz ensemble headlined by Rollins at Saugarties New York’s Opus 40, a series of reflections on Rollins by jazz critics Ira Gitler, Gary Giddins and Francis Davis, and – as the centerpiece – the only official filmed record of Rollins’s Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra, Movements 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7, mounted and performed in Japan in May of ’86.

Rollins, like Green, is fascinating to watch, and though he’s as complex a subject as one can imagine, we never feel the sense of any emotional turmoil surrounding the musician that we do from Green – only open, free, and unbridled joy that extends to the film itself. (Just witness, for example, Sonny’s rapturous performance of “Don’t Stop the Carnival” at the Opus 40 that wraps the film). Structurally, Mugge approaches Rollins as a subject by using the various interview and concert materials to create a kind of interwoven narrative tapestry, that builds to an impressionistic portrait of the musician. By the time that the final sequence rolls around, we’ve gained a myriad of insights into this legendary musician yet sense that there are still many mysteries about him to be uncovered – the film succeeds in building our curiosity and fascination. Musically, the very best that can be said about Saxophone Colossus is that a myriad of melodic complexities play out onscreen (including the Japanese sequence – a groundbreaking fusion of fixed symphonic structures and free jazz saxophone riffs), but one can approach the material with only the most rudimentary knowledge of what jazz improvisation entails, and actually learn the fundamentals from watching Sonny’s performance. Mugge seems intent on repeatedly filming Rollins from low angles, to enforce the musician’s stature as a jazz giant (which partially explains the title); with another subject, that might seem cliched, but the filmmaker understands that the level of performance on display in the film and the visual approach can do nothing but validate one another.

Reprinted with permission from the All Movie Blog