Keep On Keepin’ On
Functioning as sort of the anti-Whiplash, Alan Hicks’ documentary about an elderly musician teaching an up and coming talent focuses on excellence as a jazz maestro as a noble pursuit that should be nurtured with love and care instead of insults and hurled chairs. And yet in many ways, it’s about as deep as Damien Chazele’s recently released debut feature, which is not very, but still crowd pleasing and filled with a pair of dynamic personalities.
Ask any jazz musician or aficionado in the know – including Dizzy Gilespie, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, and Herbie Hancock – and they’ll all tell you that Clark Terry was probably the greatest trumpeter to ever live. Now in his 90s after almost singlehandedly creating the art of jazz education and confined to his bed due to illness, Terry still finds time to mentor his latest pupil. That lucky young man is 23 year old pianist Justin Kauflin, a struggling musician forced to move back to Virginia with his parents after not being able to find work or the best schooling that he wants in New York City. The reason: Justin has been blind since childhood.
Hicks hits upon a nice 50/50 blend of personal relationship and musical history. As he outlines Terry’s career in great detail with interviews from various famous admirers and stronger than usual archival footage, Hicks makes the audience care about Clark and Justin more through presenting the story as-is than he does from the sometimes on the nose musical score and well placed edits. It drags a bit in spots when there isn’t much character development going on, but that’s when Hicks lets history and a clear love of jazz take over. Both men face setbacks, but not until about an hour in, and Hicks never exploits these moments of unpleasantness or skews them into something they aren’t. It’s unforced and restrained, two things that unabashed crowd pleasing documentaries often aren’t.
It’s a pleasing story of two people who have dedicated themselves fully to the pursuit of teaching and learning, and audiences should have a great time with it. (Andrew Parker)
Céline Peterson, daughter of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and goddaughter of Clark Terry, will participate in a pre-screening Q&A on Friday, November 14, at 8:45 p.m.
Emptying the Skies
Based on a New Yorker essay by Jonathan Franzen, Emptying the Skies is a documentary about the poaching of migratory songbirds in the Middle East. The central figures of the film are a group of activists working to save these species of birds from potential extinction. The film fits in with other such animal activism documentaries as The Cove and Sharkwater, shining a light on the criminal killing of protected animals.
Director Douglas Kass improves on those films, though, by really immersing himself in the movement to stop the poaching, focusing on the people involved and the drama of their tactics. The advantage is Emptying the Skies resolutely avoids the kind of unsavory “money shot” climactic structure of other such films. There’s a horror in seeing what is being done to these precious birds, often for nothing more than sport, but there isn’t that ugly lingering you might expect.
Emptying the Skies’ interest lies in the “characters” of its story, supplying the audience with all the information needed about the songbirds and outlining the horrible nature of the poaching, and then giving the people at the heart of the activism the space to make their motivations and feelings clear. It’s also quite an enlightening documentary, taking on a subject that hasn’t gotten much serious attention. Audiences are sure to come away feeling more than a little angry, and also much more understanding of the need to protect these fragile bird species than they probably would have been otherwise. (Corey Atad)
Also at The Bloor this week:
This month’s edition of the Bloor Takeover is one the whole family can get on. The series, which allows famous personalities or noteworthy organizations to have their run of the building for a day, welcomes Girls Rock Toronto this Sunday afternoon at 4:00pm. Girls Rock Camp Toronto offers girls and female-identified youth aged eight to 16 of all musical abilities and economic backgrounds a safe space to learn an instrument of their choice, get creative and develop skills that will last them a lifetime. The event kicks off with a screening of the film Girls Rock!, followed by live performances by Girls Rock Camp Toronto alumnae Deanna Petcoff (Pins and Needles) and Brighid Fry. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Girls Rock Toronto.
The Films That Change the World series returns on Tuesday at 6:30 with a screening of Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, which we loved back at Hot Docs and recently played at Planet in Focus last week.
There are also special screenings of the results of a 48 Hour Film Challenge on Saturday afternoon at 12pm, a screening of A Tale of Two Revolutions on Saturday at 3:00pm, and Growing Cities: A Film About Urban Farming on Wednesday at 6:30pm. All are handled by third parties so check out The Bloor website for more information.