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Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo

Narrator: Julian Bond.

Narrator: Julian Bond.

Robert S. Levi’s “Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo” is a loving though uncritical documentary of the great American musician, who for 50 years led big bands around the world and created more than 1,500 compositions. Ellington’s reputation will carry pic through fest, cable, public television and video showings.

Narrated by Julian Bond, docu chronicles the highs and lows of Ellington’s intriguing career: his reign at Harlem’s Cotton Club; his leadership of renowned bands; his declining popularity with the rise of bebop and comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which won him a Time cover story.

Ellington is celebrated as the ultimate pro who never missed a performance, continuing to work up to his 1974 death despite incurable cancer.

Levi paints a portrait of a genius who wouldn’t be stopped by stereotypes, racial or musical. His eclectic work, untempered by formal training, changed the course of American music. Extending the form of jazz, the versatile and innovative composer was often ahead of his time.

The film’s strong points include illuminating, never-before-seen interviews with Ellington, rare performance footage of his famous orchestra, a discussion of Ellington’s 28-year association with composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn and a memorable re-creation of Ellington’s first meeting with Martin Luther King.

Ellington’s relationship with Irving Mills, his publisher and manager, who collected 75% of the profits, also gets attention. Ellington never expressed bitterness toward Mills, but he was resentful and the partnership was strained when Mills bought a less expensive casket for Ellington’s mother than the musician had requested.

Pic dispels some myths about Ellington’s creativity–he wrote “Solitude” in 20 minutes, for instance. He charmingly explains that everybody assumed that the bags under his eyes were from hard work, when in fact they came from fun–friends describe him as a ladies’ man.

Helmer-lenser Levi, who co-scripted with Geoffrey C. Ward, provides a systematic chronology of Ellington’s life and art. But docu lacks insight into the difficulties of being a celebrity in a segregated society, one whose music crossed over to white audiences.

It doesn’t probe deeply enough into Ellington’s attitude toward discrimination — the fact that he was refused service in Baltimore in 1960 is mentioned only in passing.

Criticized by civil rights activists for not putting himself on the line, Ellington was no crusader, but his philosophy of universality (“I am interested in the people, not my people”) somehow remains obscurely articulated.

Still, Ellington’s exuberant personality and music, placed in an ever-changing political backdrop, make up for the docu’s deficiencies. Composer’s creations (“Sophisticated Ladies,””Prelude to a Kiss”) are well integrated into this portrait, whose tech credits are top-drawer, especially Ken Eluto’s editing.

Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo

(Docu--Color)

Production: A Robert S. Levi Films production. Produced, directed by Levi. Written by Geoffrey C. Ward, Levi.

Crew: Camera (color), Levi; editor, Ken Eluto; music, Duke Ellington. Reviewed at American Film Institute, L.A., June 5, 1992 (in AFI/L.A. FilmFest). Running time: 87 min.

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