“Sound of Redemption” tells the story of a lesser-known
name in the canon of influential jazz musicians, gifted saxophone player Frank
Morgan. Highly respected by musicians and fans of the bebop genre, his life and
career were stifled by the 30 years he spent cycling in and out of San Quentin
prison. The film had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival,
accompanied by a musical tribute to Morgan at the Grammy Museum.
N.C. Heikin, director of the 2009 North Korean refugee
documentary “Kimjongilia,” looks to weave an inspiring tale out of
Morgan’s turbulent life and eventual comeback, but what results is a story not
much different from those of the scores of other artists who struggle to
overcome the lure of drugs and crime.
The film is bookended by a tribute concert being held at San
Quentin after Morgan’s death. As proteges and admirers play his music and read
excerpts from his life story to an attentive crowd of prisoners, the scene
turns to still photos, archival footage and talking head interviews with
Morgan’s family, fellow musicians and friends.
They paint a picture of a child musical prodigy with a
troubled family life who, by the time he reaches his teens in the late 1940s, has
become skilled enough to play alongside professional musicians, sitting in on
jam sessions and competing in contests. His talent puts him in the presence of such
luminaries as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, whom he considers a major
influence. But early on he also develops a heroin habit that halts his career
as he sinks into a life of addiction and crime.
In addition to the smooth jazz soundtrack throughout, the
highlights here are the anecdotes shared by Morgan’s loved ones, whose
enthusiasm for his music and personality are obvious. When Morgan’s manager
details a few of his money-making schemes to support his drug habit, we get a glimpse
into Morgan’s creative genius as well as his street smarts.
Maybe it’s because stories like this have been told so many
times, with the same beats of tragedy and triumph, that “Redemption”
isn’t able to reach its full impact. The tale of the brilliant-but-troubled
artist, complete with family issues, drug-fueled exploits and a touch of racism
along the way to an ultimate comeback, has become an all-too-familiar trope in
both narrative and documentary films. And while this film explores a true story,
that story is told in such a traditional and typical style that it doesn’t
distinguish itself much from all those other tales.
There’s also the fact that Morgan himself is only accessible
in archival interviews; towards the end of his life as he resumes a recording
career post-prison but is still haunted by his own demons, there’s ambiguity as
we aren’t able to get inside his head to uncover the biggest mysteries of his
life. As the title indicates, the film suggests that Morgan’s music outweighs
all unanswered questions, yet it still doesn’t make for a fully satisfying
climax. It opts for easy answers – “music cures all” – and doesn’t
seem to delve as deeply into Morgan’s story, or the issues surrounding it, as
Ultimately, “Sound of Redemption” honors the life
of a noted musician, but doesn’t quite make the same impact as its subject or
the music he left behind.
Distribution plans haven’t been announced as yet.