Overview: Renowned jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan’s life and death is examined through intimate interviews and gorgeous archival photography—all to the soundtrack of his music. FilmRise; 2016; Not Rated; 92 minutes.
What We Know: I Called Him Morgan begins on an ominous note, as snow is falling in New York City, and unnamed people are discussing that set, that night. It’s a neat misdirection, because most watching the documentary likely know the most basic details of trumpeter Lee Morgan’s death—that his common-law wife, Helen Morgan, murdered him during a gig—but this won’t be a true crime story. Not really. Instead, filmmaker Kasper Collin (whose other directorial credit is My Name is Albert Ayler about the trailblazing saxophonist) is obsessed with telling the story of two relationships: Lee’s relationship with Helen, and Lee’s relationship to his music. Both are complex and, at turns, both prove alternately life-affirming and utterly destructive. True to this vision, we enter Lee’s story mid-stream, as a young man already playing alongside Dizzy Gillespie and then, later, Art Blakey. Little time is spent exploring Lee’s youth or life before New York City, almost as if Collin is acknowledging that time is of little narrative interest to him. But you won’t mind. Not when you’re treated to a succession of archival photographs of Lee alongside other jazz legends during Blue Note’s golden era. I was a fan of Lee Morgan’s before seeing the film, but had never even paid attention to his appearance beyond glimpses of his face on album covers. But Lee had an expressive, almost childlike face (all ears and smile) that Collin lingers on in such an intimate way that one can’t help but feel the full weight of the human loss, and not just the musical one.
What We Try to Understand: For a time in I Called Him Morgan, Helen’s and Lee’s stories run parallel to one another; both were ensconced in the same New York jazz scene, but only met each other once Lee was at his lowest. He may have found success early, but that only made it easier for the hard drugs to find him. By the late-sixties his career seemed to be over, until Helen’s compassion and sense of discipline turned his life around. Numerous friends and collaborators interviewed for the film (including saxophonist Wayne Shorter) spoke glowingly of the couple’s relationship. Though Helen Morgan has since died, Collin unearthed a rare find—an audio-taped interview Helen gave to a trusted confidante a month before her death. In it, she tells her life story in fits and starts: pregnant twice before the age of 15 and desperate to escape rural North Carolina, she found her way to New York and created a community alongside the musicians who flocked to her tiny kitchen in Manhattan for homecooked meals. What emerges from the interview (played for Collin on a dusty stereo from a cassette fished from a drawer), is a portrait of a woman who is alternately self-aware (acknowledging she wasn’t always “nice”) and bafflingly oblique about her motivations—but it makes a for a fascinating study. In these moments, as Collin is unfurling the story, and juxtaposing archival footage and audio with more recent interviews, it’s clear he’s a skilled editor who knows how to build a story. My only true quibble with the film is that its presentation is so lingering and reverential that even at a brisk 90-odd minutes, more runtime could have been shaved without it affecting the piece’s pacing or mood. But with Lee Morgan’s music playing and photographs of jazz greats in the studio and onstage, my instinct is that this won’t bother most passionate fans.
What We’ll Never Know: Few people are fortunate enough to earn a second “prime” of their career, but Lee Morgan was one of these lucky few. That he was cut down during this second prime does little to detract from his status. He was a legend at his death, and remains so, but the most affecting moments of this film don’t occur during a cataloguing of a great man’s triumphs and failures. Instead, the quieter moments of reflection by Lee’s former bandmates and friends in I Called Him Morgan are the most gutting. Live long enough (if you’re lucky) and good friends will die or even get themselves lost along the wrong path (if they’re unlucky). During his interview, Wayne Shorter is handed a black-and-white photograph of the two in the studio together as young men. In the foreground, Lee’s head is seen wrapped haphazardly in gauze. He’s burned himself on a radiator after overdosing and falling. In the background, a young Wayne Shorter is staring at the gauze, his brows furrowed. Collin cuts back to an older, but still robust Shorter who is lost in the photo. “What are you doing Lee? What are you doing?” he asks the photo. It’s a moment that anyone who has ever found themselves missing a wayward friend has had. By the time you finish I Called Him Morgan, a legend won’t feel like a friend exactly, but will feel, at the very least knowable, fallible, and missed in equal parts.
Overall: I Called Him Morgan wisely avoids musical hagiography and, in this way, proves infinitely watchable by jazz fanatics and laypeople alike.
Edited for content 4/14/17
Featured Image: FilmRise