Review: Rewind & Play
- BERLINALE 2022: Alain Gomis travels to 1969 to present revolting unaired French footage of an interview with jazz musician Thelonious Monk
Any renowned artist can attest that giving interviews can be a tough chore. For Thelonious Monk, famed African American jazz musician and pioneer of his craft, facing the cameras on 15 December 1969 on a small studio stage was excruciating. And yet, it was only one of many such situations the gifted and quirky Monk had to endure during his career. In his feature Rewind & Play [+see also:
interview: Alain Gomis
film profile], which had its world premiere in the Berlinale in the Forum section on 15 February, director Alain Gomis, who previously graced the main competition in 2017 with Félicité [+see also:
interview: Alain Gomis
film profile], unearths never seen stock material to disclose the inner workings of a TV programme from an entirely new angle.
“Thelonious Monk wrote this piece at the start of the 1940s, but he had to wait until 1958 to become famous among jazz lovers.” It is an obvious narrative, that jazz pianist and host of the programme “Jazz Portrait,” Henri Renaud, is creating. Monk is sitting next to him at the piano, staring uneasily due to his incomprehension of French, and smiling a polite smile. His face will be covered completely in sweat later on, and one can only guess how many hours he had spent under the bright studio lights playing the piano, with no make-up artist close by that could powder his face in the right shade. Monk, a talented but tragically misunderstood artist, Renaud is trying to convey to the audience.
Gomis begins the arrangement of the footage with Thelonious Monk and his wife Nellie arriving in Paris. The initial moment shows a happily chatting Nellie and Monk predominantly smoking quietly in the background. A trip to a bar and the petting of a dog solidify the idea that Monk isn’t a man of many words. This observation paves the way for the circus awaiting him at the interview recording.
Renaud, no professional journalist himself, sets out with the misguided mission to create a persona. There is certainly knowledge and admiration for Monk’s work buried somewhere beneath the surface. But “Jazz Portrait” and Renaud are less interested in striking up a conversation with the artist than in painting him in rather trivial colours and showering that with unnecessary personal side snippets. It isn’t the musician talking about his relationship to music, his career or his influences. It is Renaud, descending into long monologues, often involving him and his prior encounters that try to dominate the story.
Presumably, it is of little interest to the jazz fan why Monk kept his piano in the kitchen in New York (all the other rooms were too small), or what he can tell him about Nellie (she is his wife and the mother of his kids). Monk, remaining ever taciturn, stares away as the interview is basically being conducted without him. Then the one situation where Monk does speak up and shares something gets an “I think it's best if we erase it” by Renaud. The words spoken don’t fit the narrative.
The initial spark is another victimising question, asking whether Monk was too “avant-garde” for early 50s French audiences, that leads to his recollection of being provided with no musicians and less money than everyone else. Gomis emphasises the uneasiness of the interview with harsh cuts, artificial breathing and rowdy noise dissonances. He creates an uneasy feeling, a repetitiveness to the circus that Monk has to go through.
But in those moments, when Monk isn’t verbally grilled by Renaud, there is the beauty of music, the language in which Monk expresses himself best. With the melodies swelling and falling, everyone in the background fades out, the agitated talking of the crew in the background becoming merely a low-key nuisance. There is a random beauty in the recording, capturing the details of Monk’s face, his dancing feet, the twirling fingers on the piano. The producers and Renaud, however, repeatedly ask him to play something else, a “medium-type tune.” Monk abides. He is the calm rock in this scenario, tolerating the media exploitation that was a constant throughout his career.
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