The elliptical, abstract structure of Shirley Clarke’s Ornette: Made in America masks a fundamentally simple narrative. It’s the story of a prodigal son who acrimoniously left his hometown and returns as one of its most distinguished citizens. The Ornette Coleman mythos is founded on the abuse heaped upon the saxophonist in his early days for his wildly unorthodox style, but the film opens with him returning to Fort Worth in 1983 to have a day named for him, a jubilant occasion that sees the jazz legend finally given his public due.
If it’s initially hard to square the Coleman apocrypha with this triumphant sight, the rest of the film illustrates the long, arduous journey to Younger versions of the musician (Demon Marshall as a child, Eugene Tatum as a teenager) appear to contrast the moments of Coleman’s success with hardscrabble adolescence. As the adult receives a key to the city, his pubescent avatar roams Fort Worth’s rundown areas, cradling a saxophone as he walks down the train tracks. Coleman’s childhood home, in comparison to the preserved and commemorated houses and parlors of classical composers, lies in total disrepair, a huff and a puff from collapse. Even after he became one of jazz’s most renowned figures, Coleman didn’t escape squalor, as related by his son and frequent drummer Denardo, who mentions spending some time in one of New York’s most dangerous blocks where his father was viciously attacked twice in a year.
In addition to these documents of the musician’s life, Clarke finds more evocative ways to tease out the hardships he faces. The specter of racism even haunts the film before we see Coleman being feted; the first shot regards the young Coleman walking out of a seedy bar as the voice of a lawman shouting, “You boys just better get on outta here!” is heard. That statement is part of a benign reenactment of Texas’s gunfighter days, but the manipulated context has roots in the systemic racism of the American South, a fact of life that taught the boy about the near-impossibility of changing a stubbornly set mind well before he showed up in New York and made skeptics of the likes of Miles Davis. But Clarke also uses her proxy Colemans to stage a kind of retroactive counseling, the presence of the aged, successful man a reassurance to the boys dreaming of getting out that they will make it beyond their imagination.
The film’s core pleasures, of course, focus on Coleman’s music and his artistic worldview. It isn’t easy to articulate the X-factor of his revolutionary method, least of all for the man himself. But it’s fascinating to hear how much Coleman’s speech reveals of his music, not in its content so much as its patterns: looping, prone to abrupt digressions, emotionally direct, and capable of sudden leaps into frighteningly advanced, abstract logic. Discussing the influence of futurist Buckminster Fuller on his work, Coleman finds kinship with Fuller’s geodesic domes, their latticework of angular connections paradoxically arranged in a sphere a fitting visualization of the surprising cohesion Ornette achieves with his group improvisation.
Having filmed Coleman on and off since 1969, Clarke has copious footage at her disposal, but the one constant of the material is the subject’s endless musical searching, as well as the purity of its expression. The film alternately portrays Coleman as a dance impresario leading a mad hoedown, a late-’60s underground noise king alongside his rock disciples the Velvet Underground, a musical hall composer, and, in a satellite precursor to video chat, a street busker from the future. One of the talking heads, jazz critic Martin Williams, recounts hearing Coleman once play not just an imitation of Charlie Parker, but a quintessence of the bebop master’s virtuosic style. He asked why Coleman didn’t play like that more often to prove to detractors that he really knew his stuff, and the saxophonist glibly dismissed this casual mastery of his instrument as just something he did from time to time for fun. Ornette: Made in America is a restless film befitting its ever-evolving character, but in such moments it comes closer than any biography to concisely conveying the joy of Coleman’s canon.
Given that the film sources from material shot over a span of years, it’s no wonder that the image transfer is inconsistent, and Milestone’s Blu-ray honestly reflects the gradual construction of the project. All of the shots have their rough edges, be it from poor shooting conditions or weaker stock, but generally speaking the image looks acceptable and clear, not maximizing the verité color palettes, but ensuring good textures and detail. The sound fares better, crisply rendering the slurring orchestras, bleating saxophones and dizzying rhythmic polyrhythms of Ornette Coleman’s music. Even speech sound good, undeniably softer in comparison, but never hard to make out.
Milestone’s disc comes with the odd short Shirley Loves Felix, in which Clarke performs over a Felix the Cat cartoon, as well as interviews with the director. It also includes "The Link Revisited," in which an interviewer speaks with Denardo Coleman about the satellite-linked performance he and his father gave from opposite ends of Manhattan, a chat appropriately conducted via Skype. The package also includes some trailers, as well as a booklet containing reminiscences from producer Kathleen Hoffman Gray.
Shirley Clarke’s abstract portrait of one of America’s most revolutionary artists is one of the few jazz films, or music films in general, to not simply explain its subject, but illustrate his mien, and Milestone’s release is essential for all fans.