While many documentaries are overly explicit, molding their narratives into pre-established patterns, Milford Graves Full Mantis embraces a looser and more subjective form, emulating the music of its subject: free jazz percussionist Milford Graves. Director Jake Meginsky offers only a few biographical tidbits about Graves—for more you will have to consult Wikipedia —and he doesn’t structure his film around a particular thesis. Meginsky is more concerned with rendering Graves’s mental landscape. At its best, the documentary is a strikingly uncompromising glimpse of the creative process, and at its worst, it wears its indulgent shapelessness as a badge of honor.
Based on the film, Graves isn’t much of a traditional storyteller. One senses that Meginsky has indulged the master, who’s most famous for dispensing with the timekeeping element of percussion (which the film doesn’t explicitly mention), encouraging him to riff. Graves talks of West African culture, martial arts (which he says he learned directly from the praying mantis), bees, the symbolic multiculturalism of his garden, and recorded heartbeats (which aren’t regularly rhythmic and which clearly inspired his visceral art).
Graves is a deeply intelligent man with a vast array of interests and opinions that are rarely expressed lucidly here, as he speaks the way he drums: jarringly, with pauses, breaks, and repetitions that honor a mysterious internal code. Musically, he’s a master of this approach, his playing serving to physicalize the harmonic disharmony of the mind, the body, and the world. Vocally, though, these devices suggest the doodling of a beat poet who’s too high on his own supply. Often in the film, when Graves seems to be on the verge of making a profound point, such as something pertaining to the relationship between tears and tonalities, he drifts off, fashioning an intellectualized shaggy-dog story. Even a seemingly straightforward anecdote, such as an arrest for gun possession that appears for a while to be the heart of the film, winds on for so long it loses any sense of catharsis.
This refusal to get to the point is the point, as Meginsky honors the stray tangents that an artist corrals together, both consciously and intuitively, to forge his or her work. Graves’s riffs contrast starkly with the fluid clarity of his playing and personal physicality, which are of course nearly one and the same. Now in his late 70s, Graves is a wiry man with a knack for movements that say more than words, such as the way he eats a leaf from his garden, bending over with the grace of a music conductor.
Meginsky favors close-ups of objects, particularly drums, feasting on textures as visual accompaniments to Graves’s simultaneous obsession with vagueness and tactility—with the quotidian of the fantastic and the ordinary. Long scenes of drum playing reaffirm Graves’s devotional rapture with the notion of cyclical anti-cycles: Using the human heartbeat as his guide, Graves fashioned a hard, fast kind of biological music. Yet Milford Graves Full Mantis lacks the fire of its subject. Meginsky’s documentary is insular, precious, and too pleased with its unwillingness to reach out to the unconverted.