Monday, Jan. 26, 2009

Musical Colossus

By David Luhrssen
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Back in the 1980s Robert Mugge was among the best documentary filmmakers working in music. Two films of his from the era have been issued on DVD, Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus and Gospel According to AlGreen.

Rollins came to prominence in jazz circles during the ‘60s for pushing the tenor saxophone onto new ground. Mugge’s interviews with Rollins and various critics and collaborators puts the music in context and gives the saxophonist a chance to expound on his working methods. He prepares for performing with meditation exercises, blocking out extraneous thoughts and creating a picture in his mind of what he hopes will happen on stage. The film’s showpiece is a brilliantly shot performance by Rollins and band in an upstate New York stone quarry. Mugge’s cameras dynamically circle the rocky stage and edits call out band members as the group lays down an elastic groove and Rollins demonstrates his melodic invention and impressive powers of endurance.

Gospel According to Al Green follows a similar format in exploring the life and music of the sexy soul singer who underwent a conversion experience in 1973 and has since become pastor of a Memphis congregation. Green comes across as a joyful proponent for his music and his faith. As he describes it, the Spirit came upon him “like a charge of electricity” in a hotel room after a grueling set of shows, washing him clean. Afterward, he never looked back.

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