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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Shape of Jazz to Come
by Donald Levit

Urban legends maybe, some in Ornette: Made in America, others not, include that one naïve audience thought “free jazz” to mean “at no cost” and that another tossed his tenor sax over an embankment. The seventy-seven-minute new restoration of the Shirley Brimberg Clarke documentary is as experimentally freeform as the subject performer/composer/theorist’s “harmolodic” playful-serious fusion of jazz, funk, blues, R&B, rock, symphonic and (from work in Morocco with Master Musicians of Joujouka and in Nigeria) ethnic bases.

There is humor, too, in the freewheeling structure of the film itself and in its speakers, from Ornette Coleman’s partial put-on “castration” story to a reading by a dour, suited William S. Burroughs through Buckminster Fuller’s voice setting forth theory -- seconded and expanded by Coleman -- of the cohesiveness of architecture, sound, plant life and just about everything else.

This cinema kaleidoscope spans forty and more years. Seeking material to inaugurate the Fort Worth Caravan of Dreams cultural arts center in 1981, Kathelin Hoffman Gray was steered to the New York former-schoolhouse residence of native son Coleman, who in turn handed her unfinished, unreleased video and 16mm stock shot by Clarke at the end of the ‘60s. Hoffman Gray moved into the Chelsea Hotel to be near the director for a collaboration that included Coleman and produced the 1986 release, now corrected and remastered through the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

The original “stretched the boundaries and definitions of filmmaking,” technically in its use of then-new Super 16 and video -- indeed, segments constitute some of the very first music video clips. The independent, controversial Oscar-winning director with personal and professional parallels with friend-enemy also-dancer-to-filmmaker rival Maya Deren, had used her subject’s relationship with his segregation-South past and with his son Ornette Denardo Coleman (later one of two drummers in the father’s Prime Time double quartet) as a thread linking disparate elements.

The released non-linear or –chronological documentary, however, is a mash-up as irrationally connected as the music wherein “no one has the lead, anyone can come out with it at any time.” If anything can be said to be a constant, it is a recurrent Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra-Prime Time performance of Coleman’s Guggenheim Fellowship Symphony No. 1, Skies of America, the last interpolation of which segues into a post-concert reception at which women of all ages and colors throw themselves at the bemused honoree.

A reenactment of an 1887 Wild West street shootout precedes the century-later presentation of an astronaut moonrock key to the city on Ornette Coleman Day. Here and there throughout are dreamlike re-creations of a not-unhappy-looking 1930s childhood (depending on age, played by Demon Marshall and Gene Tatum) on the Afro-American side of the Texas tracks, plus shots of him visiting that old neighborhood with Denardo and chewing the fat and the food with neighbors there or musicians and critics back in New York.

The Caravan of Dreams theater troupe frolics in a downtown street; the Washington, D.C., Resurrection City is here for a moment, Coleman walks the chain-linked corridors of the Lower East Side school building he purchased or sits in a junk-strewn lot; montages of famous faces flash by, or semi-psychedelic animated figures, while heads (including Denardo’s poetess mother Jayne Cortez and his aunt) talk from varicolored cartoon television sets, and rehearsal and performance footage cuts in, even to a string quartet doing his Prime Design/Time Design under a geodesic dome. Fronting the music and the implications of time-space continuum is the frequent Caravan of Dreams neon symbol, a colored square and triangle within a circle whose sides they touch in coexistent convergence of form.

Yesterday’s resisted prophet to today’s leader arguably still ahead of others, Coleman experienced hostility or indifference early and, despite later acclaim, does from some quarters today. His power and intensity have been likened by Rolling Stone to those of the Sex Pistols. Heeding Louis Armstrong’s “if you gotta ask you’ll never know,” this film does not attempt the impossibility of explicating the difficult music, on which you groove or you don’t: the film and the music are still far out there and require an openness that escapes the non-fans who probably will not sit through either.

(Released by Rialto Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)

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