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
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
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
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