Hargrove – The man, his trumpet, and the music that kept him alive
(Film premiered @ Tribeca Festival, 12 June 2022. Waterfront Plaza, Brookfield Place NYC. Film review by Dan Bergsagel)
Documentaries about jazz musicians are typically about figures from history long after they have died. Occasionally, rarely, they are about existing elder statesmen. Hargrove stands alone in the genre: as a documentary which was originally conceived as one about a young vibrant musician, but completed as a testament to a lost player. It is tragic, in the sense that it is a documentary in memoriam, shaped not by intention but by circumstance; it is current, in the sense that it is full of interviews with contemporary musicians holding memories still raw; and it is unusual, in the sense it focuses on a younger generation of musicians from the world of jazz and beyond, and is mediated through documentary film-maker and friend Eliane Henri, making her directorial debut with this film. Hargrove combines all these things with a pinch of straightforward mythology-building, industry intrigue, and a humorous lilt even when dealing with growing hardship.
To many musicians, Roy Hargrove’s jazz career had peaked before most kids had graduated from their paper round. As a prodigious trumpet player in Texas attracting the attention of the visiting Wynton Marsalis, he was on his first European tour at 17 with Herbie Hancock. The early part of the film is heavy with attestations of genius from talking heads, interspersed with grainy clips of a young Roy on stage in high school or at junior jazz festivals, and generally appearing exceptionally accomplished. What is clear from the archive footage, and from Hargrove proudly bragging about the perfect scores he used to receive in these competitions, is that he knew he was good.
Part of the early unique appeal of Hargrove was that, not only was he good, but he had style. In his early 20s he dragged jazz from a world of suits and boots to sneakers and sunglasses, oversized Ts and bright jackets. Combining a hard bop sound with a modern attitude, Ralph Moore described him as both a “throwback and a throw forward, at the same time”. That modern attitude extended to who he played with, and what he played. While other jazz musicians kept their distance from the growing popularity of R&B and hip hop, Roy jumped into the heart of it and the mark he left on Questlove, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and childhood friend (and film executive producer) Erykah Badu was evident in the way they spoke of his influence on their recordings and musical careers.
One of the clear threads throughout the film is how much Hargrove loves playing music. There are stories from the 90s of his prodigious work ethic, and recent footage of him guiding jam sessions in the early hours at Smalls, NYC. The bulk of the new material in the film is structured around his 2018 European Summer tour, and he talks about being rained off from an outdoor show in Sète, France, and instead taking the band and turning up to a local club in town and playing an impromptu set there. There is the way he talks about playing, a musician’s signature, and the mystical magic of the ride cymbal’.
It is when his love for playing begins to collide with his health, that it becomes clear the intensity of focus on music can be a blessing and a curse. In Italy and France, Hargrove looks and sounds tired, and while he loves playing the intensity of travel is getting to him. “They pay you for getting there, the music part is easy”. His health, while visible in the recent footage of him, only seeps into the film’s narrative slowly, carefully drip fed by Henri. First, he shrugs it off – he is too busy touring to deal with physical trifles – how could he take six months off from playing? Then there is the mention of how it first manifested, back pain and bathroom breaks, but he just pushed through and had to make the gig. When he collapses on tour and his band insists on taking him to hospital against his manager’s intentions, it occurs to the viewer that perhaps his prioritization of playing over health was more than just his decision.
This is where the villain of the piece is introduced. Larry “Ragman” Clothier – Hargrove’s long-time manager – looms over the interviews and film in a complicated. He is convincingly presented as a nasty figure who fires band members and controls Hargrove’s schedule and finances against his will, as a modern-day planter running a forced labour camp and working his musicians to death. Yet he is also described as a respected advisor and surrogate father, and the source of Hargrove’s early career promotion, professionalization, and stratospheric success. When it deals with Clothier and his legacy, the film switches from Hargrove documentary to something more, exploring power imbalances and issues of consent. The imbalance of power indelibly marks the film, with Henri explaining after the film that, due to Clothier’s unwillingness to license any of Hargrove’s music, this is a rare jazz documentary which features Hargrove playing only the compositions of other musicians but not his own.
At first glance, then, Hargrove appears as a conventionally filmed piece – close-focus stage shots, greenroom fly on the wall recordings, and an endless series of talking heads. What is unusual are the less staged moments: arguments with Clothier, footage of the director hanging out with her friend, and the incessant questions from Hargrove of whether they were done filming him already. Beyond Roy Hargrove’s music and story, it is this unfiltered access to the person which makes Hargrove an interesting addition to the jazz documentary canon. Long recordings of him reciting James Brown’s lyrics of ‘Prisoner of Love’ as if it was poetry, or grumpily insisting that he doesn’t want to look at any more grave stones because “They’re all dead people; I don’t want nothing to do with that”.
The soul of the film – and the impression of Roy Hargrove that I will keep front and centre – lies in one evening walk in Perugia. Hargrove ambles down the street, suited, as the camera back pedals in front of him. He sings aloud, slowly shuffling and joking with gawking passers-by. Walking is visibly hard for him, and he stops and smokes, surveying the street and gathering his energy. Right now, he is preoccupied with the best ice-cream he has ever had, and getting some trainers from the hip hop shop. Hargrove is light and silly and is killing time, and he is funny and charming.
The purest joy we see from him in the whole film is when Henri agrees to buy him some shoes for 80 euros. He’s labouring through kidney disease and dialysis but still wants to look the part. He is a jazz genius who needs to borrow cash off his film maker. He just wants to try the best ice cream in the world again…and then, looking forward to his gig that night he closes it: “how you guys doing? Ok? You can stop filming now’. In that moment it is clear that Henri has made a film which is about much more than the story of a musician, it is about the pieces of a man.
Categories: Film review