Pick any critical cultural moment of the last six decades, and you’re likely to find Quincy Jones’ fingerprints somewhere on the tape. In those 60 years, he has toured with Ray Charles as a teenager, written chart-toppers for Lesley Gore, arranged music for Frank Sinatra, produced Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and launched the careers of Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, and Whoopi Goldberg, to name a few. His name is synonymous with black culture, American music, and humanitarianism. But few have had the privilege to sit by Qunicy’s side holding his hand as he narrates one of countless stories stored away in his ever-sharp and creative mind. His daughter, the actress (now filmmaker) Rashida Jones, is one of them — and in the new documentary “Quincy,” she graciously shares the rarefied experience with the rest of the world.
Drawing on extraordinary archival footage and intimate moments shot over the last five years, Jones and co-director Alan Hicks paint a human portrait of this larger-than-life figure. It is utterly surreal to witness Quincy in the studio with a young Michael Jackson while recording “Off the Wall,” and painfully intimate to see him flooded with memories on a 1989 sojourn to the former family homestead in Chicago. With so much ground to cover and so much footage at their disposal, it is no small feat that the filmmakers were able to zero in on such richly specific moments.
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Quincy Jones was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1933. One of his earliest memories, which plagued him all his life, is of his mother being strapped to the bed and taken away in a straitjacket. She suffered from schizophrenia, and would sometimes send him glowing magazine clippings about himself — with notes attached calling it all lies. He met Ray Charles when he was 14 years old, and the 16-year-old pianist became like an older brother. When he was 18, Jones was invited on tour in Europe with jazz bandleader Lionel Hampton, which began a lifelong affair with European music culture. In 1957, he would move to Paris to study classical music with Nadia Boulanger, who had taught Igor Stravinsky. “France made me feel free as an artist and as a black man,” recalls Jones.
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He got his first big break from Dinah Washington, who persuaded Mercury Records to hire him to arrange her album in 1955. The album was a hit, and the offers came pouring in. Hoping to get out of debt after a failed tour, he took a job as an executive at Mercury Records, where he discovered “a 16-year-old kid from new Jersey named Lesley Gore.” 1963’s “It’s My Party” was Quincy’s first hit single, and the call from Frank Sinatra came a year later.
“Frank was just my style,” Jones recalls. Like with Ray Charles, he said, the two never had a contract: “Just a handshake.” It was through this fruitful and mutually beneficial partnership that an orchestration by Jones became the first music on the moon, when Buzz Aldrin blasted “Fly Me to the Moon” during Apollo 11.
Jones wrote the music for “The Wiz” in 1978, which is how he first became impressed by a young Michael Jackson. Seeing something in Jackson, he pitched him on making his first solo record. “We attacked that record,” Jones says of “Off the Wall.” In behind-the-scenes footage from the “Thriller” music-video shoot, Jackson appears innocently happy as Jones tells him they are making history. Walking offstage after their Grammy win in 1984, Jones wraps his arms around Jackson and lifts him up in a big bear hug. It is a remarkably ordinary gesture of love, and a rare image of Jackson in pure celebration.
“Quincy” concludes with the culmination of a little project Jones took on just after a stroke: organizing a show for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is delightful to see him on the phone with Colin Powell, sweet-talking him into attending (“I love you, man. Tom Hanks will introduce you” seems to do the trick). Even more moving is seeing Jones wheeled through the exhibit for the first time, his name next to all of his illustrious friends, of which he is last standing. “All of ’em gone. That’s frightening. Beautiful people,” is all he manages to get out.
The younger Jones, as filmmaker, stays mainly off camera, equally attentive to her father’s health as to his style. His blue suede loafers catching her eye, she admits she’s just learning how to use the camera. The film is light on stylistic risks, preferring a straightforward approach that serves the wealth of material. “Quincy” is refreshingly devoid of talking-head interviews, relying instead on the measured ruminations of the man himself and the extensive archives Jones and Hicks had the difficult job of paring down. The result is a jaunty stroll through the last half-century of music history, and a fitting tribute to a living legend.
Quincy” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release it on September 21.