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LAFF Review: ‘Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story’ is a Well-Meaning but Tepid Look at the Life of a Jazz Legend

LAFF Review: 'Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story' is a Well-Meaning but Tepid Look at the Life of a Jazz Legend

“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
it might.

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.

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Comments

Rani Shelah Moody

I think that the author of this article missed the point of this film. Unlike the typical biopic, "Redemption: The Frank Morgan" story is not told in a traditional, linear fashion. It takes a lot of the focus away from the musician and his ego and spotlights the people whose lives were most affected by him including his loves ones and fans, such as saxophone prodigy Grace Kelly and mystery writer Michael Connelly, (executive producer) who alludes to Frank Morgan in many of his novels. Anyone who has been close to or has lived with someone of artistic temperament, who is also caught up in the cycle of addictive drugs, can understand the pain that it leaves in its wake, especially when many of the questions are unanswered. I think this is what director N.C. Hiekin beautifully conveys in the film. The true message is not that music heals all, though the soundtrack is well done and the performances are quite inspiring. The truth is that, Frank Morgan's life did not have a happy ending, in the end, there was no personal redemption; he was not able to conquer his demons. Part of the message is that often, a genius is often recognized after his death and often, there is no closure for those who he has left behind. "Redemption" is a celebrates Morgan's music and his contribution to his art form.

Ol' Skool

You like potato and I like potahto. You say tomato and I say tomahto. One man's garbage is another man's treasure.

That's my take away from this post and the comments.

Re: The post. Although the film didn't hit Jai's groove zone, her post inspired great conversation… some quite eloquent. That's a win-win for everyone.

re: The comments. I had never heard of Frank Morgan, however, reading all the glowing comments about the music in this doc inspired me to check the dude out. I went to youtube , there he was, playing the sax (on several cuts)… and he captured my soul. He has a new fan in me.

Jeff Cohlberg

Actually I found the story quite compelling. It’s a shame that Morgan had died by the time the film was made and that there is so little footage of him that survives, but the filmmakers did a good job of working within those limitations. Some of the interviews with those close to Morgan were quite moving. I saw Morgan play at Catalina’s in the late ‘80’s but didn’t know about his history, so I got caught up in the ups and downs of his life as they were revealed chronologically in the film. I found Morgan very appealing in some ways and could understand why others were drawn to him. The information about the jazz band at San Quentin and the well-known musicians who played in it was fascinating. And I loved the scenes of the San Quentin concert – great musicians with the wonderful commentary of Delfeayo Marsalis, plus scenes of the prisoners’ reactions – I know things like this have been filmed before, but this was a joy to watch – Grace Kelly’s solo on “Over the Rainbow” alone was almost worth the price of admission.

Bill Grantham

The idea that the closer you are to Morgan's music the more you'll like the film may be fair – unverifiable, however. True, I love the music and I did love the film. And while I think you're saying the "redemption" trope is overplayed in documentary film making – again, maybe a fair point – it's a reasonable characterization of a man who became a junky in his teens, spent the best part of 30 years in California prisons, came out, got clean (with great difficulty) and recorded two dozen albums in the time remaining to him. There are other films that could and should be made about Morgan, and some will maybe foreground some of the issues you mention (although they're not ignored here). But this film, for me, is fine on its own terms and I'd urge everyone reading this to see it. Morgan is as entitled to a "redemption" film as anyone, especially one that, as here, is loving without being over-indulgent. (I don't think I would have wanted to live with him, pre- or post-redemption.) For what it's worth, I cried twice.

Bill Russell

Thank you, Jai!  This is a thoughtful recap, though I have to chime in on one thing ('cause I loved this film — you don't have to love this film).  In a crucial turn I think this review missed the forest for some saplings.  I can't get so caught up in the redemption arc as cliche.  It remains moving — and in fact, in order for this particular movie to work, an up note is sort of a requirement — but beyond that, I suspect few of my fellow (packed, by the way) audience members came here for the fable.  The redemption story is not what will carry this film forward career-wise.  (I predict it's got a lot of forward to go, time will tell, because it really is an important piece!)  The eponymous redemption is not the take-away for me, but the vehicle, not if you appreciate music or know jazz. "Dude, 'redemption' is the title of the movie!"  No, that wouldn't be unusual storytelling, but I'll cross that Bridge Over the River Kwai when we get to it. It's about the music.

Morgan does not merely stand-in to tell a tale of "redemption" or "grace".  That wouldn't work given what's at the heart.  (Certainly we can entertain plenty of wonderful, transformative missives that accomplish the task. I'm a sucker for "Guys and Dolls", thank you Frank's final girlfriend! So yes it's true, trial/redemption is an oceanic theme back to Odysseus, I'm not complaining.)  You don't have to "know" jazz for this movie to gut punch, though aficionados may well enjoy a deeper high.  Getting to know Frank Morgan was a revelation for me, and come to think of it, the soft belly Jai was looking for is right there in the raw expression of Frank's final girlfriend and wife. All of this serves to crack open the incredible music you're hearing and seeing performed.  The music. Is. Transcendent.

I've sat through a lot of wonderful festival cinema over the years, and no one has the particular color of Frank Morgan. Like any good film, it stands out as something new.  Nothing here felt "well-worn" to me. The take-away for me is that this is an artistic master who tumbled off the radar — or hurled himself head-first — entangled in his own legacy of self-destruction. A lot of what could have been was burned alive in the decades of Morgan's drug-fueled criminal stupor. But the stuff that counts has been, or more importantly can be, salvaged — if we seize the opportunity.  Thinking Van Gogh.  Morgan's redemption is in part ours, to have this chance to recognize him.  It's not so much that "music cures all" (and obviously it doesn't! maybe a stroke does) — it's that this is great music worth knowing.

I find even the archival "Frank Morgan" to be more revealing than perhaps it was for Jai or some viewers, especially in Morgan's performing presence or in what he doesn't say within all his thick charisma and peppy talk. I should add that this film offers one of the more visceral and convincing accounts I've seen of how racism — ESPECIALLY subtle, diffuse, cultural racism — serves more than just to cause suffering, but ruins psyches, ruins lives.  Anyway, forest for the trees.  Regards.

Bill Russell

Thank you, Jai! This is a thoughtful recap, though I have to chime in on one thing ('cause I loved this film — you don't have to love this film, of course). In a crucial turn I think your review may miss some forest for trees. I can't get so caught up in the redemption arc as cliche. Not sure where that's coming from. It's moving — and in fact in order for this particular movie to work a positive final note is sort of a requirement — but suspect few of my fellow (packed) audience members came here for the fable. And that's not what will carry this film forward. (I predict it's got a lot of forward to go, because it is an important piece.) The eponymous redemption is not the take-away, but the vehicle, not if you appreciate music or know jazz. That's not so unusual for storytelling (but I'll cross that Bridge Over the River Kwai when we get to it). Getting to know Frank Morgan was a revelation for me, and in fact, I think the soft belly Jai was looking for was right there in Frank's final girlfriend and wife.

Morgan does not merely stand-in to tell a tale of "redemption" or "grace". (Certainly we can entertain plenty of wonderful, transformative missives that accomplish that task superbly. I'm a sucker for "Guys and Dolls", thank you Frank's girlfriend! Or the Odyssey ain't too limp. So yes it's true, trial/redemption is an oceanic theme, I'm not complaining.)

I've read a lot of literature, watched a lot of cinema. No one has the color palette of Frank Morgan. Nothing here felt "well-worn". The take-away for me is that this is an artistic master who tumbled off the radar — or plunged himself head-first — entangled in his own legacy of self-destruction. A lot of what could have been was burned alive in the decades of Morgan's drug-fueled criminal stupor. But the stuff that counts has been, or more importantly can be, salvaged — if we seize this opportunity! Not to make false comparisons, but think DaVinci, utterly at sea in his own era. Morgan's redemption is in part ours, to have this chance to recognize him. It's not so much that "music cures all" (and obviously it doesn't!) — it's that this is great music worth knowing.

I find even the archival "Frank Morgan" to be more revealing than perhaps it was for some viewers, especially in his performing presence or in what he doesn't say within all his thick charisma. I should add that this film offers one of the more visceral and convincing accounts I've seen of how racism — ESPECIALLY subtle, diffuse, cultural racism — serves more than just to cause suffering but ruins psyches, ruins lives.

Up In The Balcony

**Statler and Waldorf are awakened by the chatter below**

S: "Wake up man, you're missing it"
W: "Statler you old fool, if you don't leave me alone, I'm not sleep, I'm thinking"
S: "Yeaah, riiight. Anyway, I was wondering how Jai was going to address her attackers?"
W: "Attackers, what did I miss?"
S: "I thought you said you wasn't sleeping?"
W: "Let me tell you one mo time. Now, turn up your hearing aid, I was not sleeping, I was thinking and I must have went into one of my deepest thoughts. Anyway, what did I miss?"
S: "A mind is a terrible thang to waste. You missed the 3 C's (Connie, Carolyn and the crew) throwing shade on Jai's review.
W: "Oh lord, didn't they know?"
S: "Know what?"
W: " That Jai ain't no punk. She may be Tambay's next in charge but she ain't nobodies as@ kisser… no buddy"
S: "Yeah, I knew that. And I'll tell you what, unlike the crew, I completely understood her review."
W: "Really?"
S: "Yeah… really. Like she said, "It's important to remember that this isn't a review of Morgan's life or music, but of the film and the way in which its story is told…" So in essence she was saying great music and emotional moments with San Quentin prisoners does not translate to a great film, nor a well told story.
W: "I hear you, I'd be crying too if I was locked up. But Stat, what other concerns did Jai have?"
S: Well, she said, "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"

W: "Splain that"

S: "Well, in her opinion, the film was… ahh… superficial or without much depth. She would have loved to have heard Mr. Morgan (himself) speak about his deepest struggles, journey, demons and if he indeed found redemption and if he did, how he acquired it?"

W: "Damn, that's some deep sh*t"

S: "HELLO! EXACTLY! That's Jai's point, she said "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."

W: "Well, I guess that just about closes this debate. But didn't Morgan find redeemption? He kicked his heroin habit, didn't he?"

A: "Easy greasy, you have a long way to slide. Truth be told Mr. Morgan merely substituted one narcotic drug for another"

W: "WHAT!?"

A: "You didn't know… Mr. Morgan never kicked his addiction to opiates. His new love was an opiate called Methadone. Although it's legal to take and is prescribe by a doctor, it's still a narcotic, which by the way is 10 times more potent than heroin"

W: "OH MY GOD! Then why do they take it and how do you know all of this?"

A: "Morgan and I share a journey"

W: "You played the sax"

A: "No fool, I too was addicted at the age of 17 and I've been incarcerated"

W: "WHAT!? Tell me more"

A: "Nope… not today. Go back to sleep"

**Statler and Waldorf nod off**

jai tiggett

It's important to remember that this isn't a review of Morgan's life or music, but of the film and the way in which its story is told. I'd argue that the greater your connection to Morgan and his music, the more likely you are to have liked the film. I'd also argue that the film is targeted at a certain age and racial demographic, and many of its choices were made with that in mind.

Again, this kind of story has been told many times over and here, the formula is the same. The 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' solo, for example, is perhaps one of the most cliched moments in the film. It reduces Morgan's story to a trope, when many choices could have been made to create a more in-depth, engaging and honest film. I won't even get into the cultural elements at play here, and the fact that the doc doesn't really address recidivism or the layers of other issues working in Morgan's life.

I'm not here to fight and will let the matter rest from here. Feel free to disagree, but personal attacks aren't necessary.

Connie Mellors

Wow I think this review is really off base….the concert at San Quentin which is the framework on which the film is structured was so powerful not only because of the incredible musicians paying tribute to Frank Morgan but because of the impact the music had on the inmates watching and living the music and their faces reflecting their own sadness and in some of those faces their own redemption. That was such a powerful and unique device in the telling of this man's story…I fail to see how this reviewer was not moved by these very real emotions of the prisoners to the story and playing of one of their own.

Carolyn Campbell

I’m not sure if the reviewer was watching the same film I saw at the Regal Theater as part of the recent LA Film Festival. Even though CBS touted the film as “Pick of the Fest” I was holding my critique until I saw it for myself.

I witnessed a story rarely told before in the doc genre. Not to mention hearing one of the most sensational sound tracks in recent memory.

Having worked with jazz legends such as Kenny Burrell and Gerald Wilson, to name a few, for more than a decade, I’ve heard some amazing stories as well as music. I’ve also worked on films such as Warner Bros’ jazz fiction "‘Round Midnight" and nothing comes close to the experience I had viewing "Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story." I found it innovative, incredibly moving and a rare story telling style that brought new insights to the insidious civil rights struggles facing young black men (not women) of that era. As well as the history of LA’s Central Avenue and NYC’s jazz club scenes delivered in a powerfully nuanced manner.

Morgan’s good times and bad came alive through exceptional footage and expertly choreographed still images both of the musician as a young man and later in life. These scenes coupled with interviews with family members, lovers, and fellow musicians painted a unflinching portrait of a man we could relate to for his boundless bravado and ego as well as a deep self-loathing and fearless criminality. The chilling revelation behind his famed ”Ink Spots” musician father as a life-long pimp possibly sowed some of the early seeds for Frank’s eventual character defects.

I would argue that the reviewer’s summation missed a major thread in the film about Morgan’s redemption by claiming, ”… the easy answers “music cures all.” I watched a man on the screen who had more demons than drugs and the music wasn’t his only remedy. Addiction is a three-fold disease that affects the mind, body and spirit. A soul sickness is present long before the drugs arrive to steal one’s being like a rapacious creditor. Morgan’s road to redemption was complex and individual. As he referenced many times, his finding a connection to a “higher self” is what changed his life. His horn may have been part of that divine intervention, but it had a lot more to do with inner work that he struggled with for decades. That and the tough love shared by his inimitable wife, Rosalinda Kolb led him down a path of self-examination that was both pain filled and freeing.

For the overall success of the film, I only have to recall the emotional faces of the San Quentin inmates (the prison concert scenes are history-making themselves) and the enthusiastic festival audience response during Morgan prodigy, Grace Kelly’s alto sax solo, “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”

Robert Pepin

"a story told in such a traditional and typical style it doesn't distinguish itself much from all those tales" ?
How can you write that about a "tale" told by way of a tribute concert given at Saint Quentin high security prison by some of the most highly regarded jazz musicians in the world?
In front of an audience moved to tears by the haunting quality of the music they hear? I must be incredibly traditional in my being moved by this movie. So must be the various sorts of people who cried when they saw it at the Los Angeles film festival.

No, the only traditional and typical thing in all this is a review written by someone so jaded she can write that Frank Morgan's life might have been affected by "a touch of racism".
That sure is sad.

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