Now on Blu-ray and DVD
from MVD Visual!
Featuring Sonny Rollins
A 101-minute portrait of jazz great Sonny Rollins featuring an ensemble performance in upstate New York and an orchestral world premiere in Tokyo, Japan.
Mouse over the thumbnails above
to switch the cover at the left.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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
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.)
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
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
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
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
INTERVIEWS ABOUT SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS
Bob Andelman (aka, Mr. Media of YouTube.com) interviews Robert Mugge about his 1986 film SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS, newly released on Blu-ray and DVD.
Posted August 6, 2017. Interview Recorded July 11, 2017.
Debbie Burke of debbieburkeauthor.com interviews Robert Mugge about his 1986 film SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS, newly released on Blu-ray and DVD.
Posted August 4, 2017.
Tim Scott of noisey.vice.com interviews Robert Mugge about his 1986 film SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS, newly released on Blu-ray and DVD.
Posted August 2, 2017.