“Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary,” John Scheinfeld’s new feature about the American saxophonist, composer, thinker, and creative innovator, lands in Toronto with what feels like perfect timing.
The recent so-called jazz renaissance, fuelled in part by an array of high-profile cross-genre collaborations on record and on stage, has seen the revolutionary artistry of Coltrane — who died of liver cancer at age 40 in 1967 — re-enter popular music discourse, priming young audiences for discovery.
So far this decade, half of the best feature documentary Oscars have gone to films about musicians. Not surprising, then, that numerous buyers — who got a first look at the pic in Telluride, with conversations now accelerating in Toronto — have been tracking “Trane” for almost a year. The project, which was initiated by producer Spencer Proffer, secured not only the full participation of Coltrane’s family, who control his publishing rights, but also unprecedented access to the lion’s share of his recordings by the record labels that own them. Almost 50 Coltrane recordings, spanning his full career, are heard in the film, and used in various ways.
WME Global is representing “Chasing Trane” in Toronto.
“I wanted to feel as if Coltrane scored this film, because in his extraordinary catalog is every mood and emotion and texture,” Scheinfeld said, whose previous films include “The U.S. vs. John Lennon.”
But just as Coltrane’s music transcends genre, the film — visually rich with hundreds of never-before-seen photos, home movies, animated paintings by artist Rudy Gutierrez, and other treasures — goes beyond familiar chronological music-doc patterns.
Because no TV or usable radio interviews exist of Coltrane, Denzel Washington was approached to perform the voice of the musician.
“One of Coltrane’s quotes, ‘I don’t play jazz, I play John Coltrane’ became a guiding principal,” said Scheinfeld. “I started in scripted TV work, and that three-act structure was important to engage the audience in a way that is not the equivalent of a jazz-history class.”
Coltrane’s musician friends, children, and biographers tell his story, while eloquent commentary from former U.S. President Bill Clinton and academic and philosopher Dr. Cornel West communicate a deep understanding of his cultural and historical significance. Coltrane, who grew up in the segregated South, rarely talked politics, but the stories behind his most notable compositions (“Alabama”) and albums (“A Love Supreme”) resonate in the here and now.
Coltrane’s emotional and spiritual journey, as expressed in his music, is what Telluride and Toronto audiences are responding to strongly. “There are films about artists who allowed themselves to be dragged down by their demons, but Coltrane conquered his challenges,” said Scheinfeld, referring to the musician’s difficult withdrawal from heroin. “He ascended from that to accomplish amazing things.”