The story of exploitation and loss in legendary vocalist Jimmy Scott’s eventual rise to fame is not unique in the annals of jazz, and Matthew Buzzell’s understated docu manages to drive that point home far more poignantly than could any form of cooked-up outrage. Performance footage of Scott on a recent tour of Japan — his uniquely phrased renditions of “Time After Time” or “Pennies From Heaven” floating serenely over the strings of a Tokyo orchestra or more compactly interweaving with the piano riffs of his own combo — is intercut with interviews that trace his notoriously stop-and-start career. Television and video prospects look good, given resurgence of interest in Scott after his recent Grammy nomina-tion and his featured appearance in Ethan Hawke’s pic “Chelsea Walls.”
Pic hits Scott’s key bio points with commendable clarity. Kallmann’s Syndrome, a rare disease that prevents puberty, assured his signature high voice would remain unchanged, but also apparently led to booze-swilling, gun-toting over-assertions of masculinity. The early death of his mother, hit by a car while saving her little daughter, scattered the then-13-year-old Scott and his nine brothers and sisters into foster homes (cut to a spine-chilling rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”).
But the true drama lies in Scott’s troubled recording career. On his first big 78rpm hit, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” with Lionel Hampton’s band, his name was nowhere to be found. A major vinyl collaboration with Charlie Parker was wrongly attributed to Chubby Newsome. A 1963 breakthrough Scott solo LP produced by Ray Charles, considered by some to be one of the two or three greatest vocal albums ever pressed, was pulled shortly after release because of lawsuit threats by a venal label owner (“There was a sort of honor among thieves, but Jimmy happened upon the one thief with no honor.”).
Scott more or less gave up for 20 years, taking jobs as dishwasher, elevator operator or whatever came along, playing infrequent gigs offered by those few who knew he wasn’t dead. And then, slowly, it all started up once more, Scott having acquired the patience and equanimity to sing the blues again.
Buzzell, in his first feature docu, manages to capture the strange karmic rhythms of his good friend Jimmy’s life, as Scott at 75 tools around Tokyo with energy and curiosity that seem boundless, and old buddies recount the now-distant follies of his youth.