Midway through “Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary,” John Scheinfeld’s elegantly crafted and illuminating portrait of the singular jazz legend, John Densmore, of the Doors, talks about “Kind of Blue,” the touchstone 1959 Miles Davis album on which Coltrane was a pivotal player. Densmore calls it an album that transcends categories, one that even people who don’t “get” jazz can respond to. And he’s right. But let’s be honest: Even today, the people who feel like they don’t get jazz vastly outnumber those who do. “Chasing Trane” is a film that might have been made for them. Not because it’s “Coltrane for Dummies” — its grasp of Coltrane’s genius is direct and organic — but because it builds what John Coltrane did from the ground up, leading us through the mystery of his lyric celestial saxophone wail, and how it emerged from the complex person he was.
“Chasing Trane” is a seductive piece of middle-of-the-road documentary filmmaking; it gives you the basics, but beautifully. (You could walk into this movie knowing nothing about Coltrane and walk out an impassioned convert.) The film has more than its share of talking heads, including much sly and incisive commentary from Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Cornel West, Carlos Santana, Ben Ratliff, and a surprisingly eloquent-on-art Bill Clinton. Yet the heart of the film is the way that Scheinfeld employs photographs. He unearths an evocative array of them and melds them together to tell a story: of a tall, burly, rather conventional-looking gentleman — imagine Jay-Z’s lawyer brother — who maintained a poker face, yet his eyes burned with a spiritual hunger.
Scheinfeld, whose previous documentaries on musicians include “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” and “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?),” has a flair for teasing out the inner narrative of an artist’s story. “Chasing Trane” opens at a dramatic moment in 1957, when Coltrane, having joined the Miles Davis Quintet, is at the midnight epicenter of the jazz universe. He’s 31 and married, with a stepdaughter he’s devoted to (at one point he walks all the way home after a gig so that he can save his pay to buy shoes for her the following day). Each night, on stage, he and Miles — along with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones — are recasting the molecular structure of jazz, melting down the harmonies of bebop into something exquisitely downcast and bittersweet, with all eyes and ears upon them. It’s a heady time, but Coltrane is hooked on heroin. He’s a functional junkie and alcoholic who is able to maintain the geniality of his demeanor, although he has a way of showing up for gigs in clothes it looks like he slept in.
After a while, Davis has had enough, and Coltrane gets fired. It’s the pivot-point moment of his life: Will he now go up…or down? The film flashes back to his boyhood in North Carolina, where Coltrane grew up immersed in the church — a number of his relatives were preachers — and where he fixated on music as a lifeline in the Jim Crow South. “We gonna share and spread some soothing sweetness against the backdrop of a dark catastrophe,” says Cornel West. “That’s black music.” It was when Coltrane was in the Navy, stationed at Pearl Harbor right after the Second World War, that he made his first recording, a faux-Charlie Parker doodle we hear on the soundtrack that several commentators, notably Wynton Marsalis, mock for sounding like it was made by someone with very little potential.
Coltrane’s fateful decision to kick his heroin habit was more than a personal salvation. It opened the door to who he became as an artist. The myth of the jazz junkie — the notion, shared by so many of the music’s night-world horn-blowers, that heroin heightened their improvisational daring — is one that has never entirely disappeared; it remains, in its death-trap way, a romantic idea. Yet the extraordinary lift-off and trajectory of Coltrane’s career gives the ultimate lie to it. When he got off the junk, his music changed. Only then did it begin to soar, to acquire that heavenly and ecstatic sun-chaser quality.
Jazz, before Coltrane, was the jostling, sexy, mournful, existential sound of the city. Coltrane took that sound and purified it, burning it down to its transcendent core: the sound of faith. The film documents his progression from the formative days with Miles to the scabrously gorgeous soprano-sax version of “My Favorite Things” that became a crossover fluke hit in 1961 to the moment in 1964 when he moved into the room over his garage on Long Island to compose the suite to God that would become “A Love Supreme.” After that landmark album, he shot further out into the cosmos than most listeners wanted to go (he thought he was on a musical spaceship; they heard avant-garde shrieking). But maybe that’s a way of saying that his journey was complete.
Throughout “Chasing Trane,” Denzel Washington reads Coltrane’s words on the soundtrack, with a plainspoken directness that matches the artist’s no-fuss observations. Yet there’s a reason that Coltrane, in this film, remains a somewhat distant figure: At no point — on the soundtrack, in an interview — do we ever get to hear his voice. He speaks to us only through the saxophone. That makes parts of the movie more remote than they might have been. Coltrane’s marriages, his friendships, the onslaught of the liver cancer that came on with suddenness and killed him at 40: all of this is observed from a slight remove. Yet by treating Coltrane as someone whose identity was filled to the brim by music, “Chasing Trane” presents him as a mythological figure: the apotheosis of jazz. Other great artists would follow, but after Coltrane it would all be sound in the wilderness.