Few musical genres connote as specifically refined a visual aesthetic as jazz: Alongside those complex, clattering notes, a lot of immaculate lighting, styling and tailoring went into the birth of the cool. So it’s fitting that Kasper Collin’s excellent documentary “I Called Him Morgan,” a sleek, sorrowful elegy for the prodigiously gifted, tragically slain bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, is as much a visual and textural triumph as it is a gripping feat of reportage. Binding its charismatic gallery of talking heads with woozy, moody evocations of Morgan’s New York City — courtesy of ravishing 16mm lensing by the ingenious cinematographer Bradford Young — Collin’s film is most moving when it delves past the expected struggles with fame, creation and addiction to etch the unusual, affectionate and finally fatal relationship between Morgan and his common-law wife Helen.
Though Morgan’s voice and perspective are present via a 1971 interview recorded mere months before his death, it’s Helen who emerges, also from beyond the grave, as the film’s most vital narrating presence. Collin draws extensively on an unfinished 1996 interview — also performed shortly before her passing — by her night-school teacher Larry Remi Thomas, in which she reflects on her part-romantic, part-maternal union with the reckless jazzman, which culminated in her shooting him dead one blizzard-whipped night at an East Village club. That’s the salaciously grabby “what”: Though his infidelity was a contributing factor, the whys are more complex and elusive, with Helen’s state of mind, hazy even then, not quite fathomable to her 24 years after the fact.
Collin has form with such material: his 2007 debut feature “My Name is Albert Ayler,” to which “I Called Him Morgan” plays as a mournful companion piece from the title down, chronicled the short life and death of freeform saxophonist Ayler, whose body was fished from the East River in 1970 following an apparent suicide. These anatomies of two musical peers and their mutually premature demises are individually powerful; taken together, however, they form a tacit inquiry into the social structures of — and, arguably, history’s muted response to — a cultural movement dominated by African-American masculinity. “It was the end of the beginning,” says one Morgan associate of his death, leaving pointedly unsaid the diminished popular status of the jazz scene in the intervening decades.
With his storytelling given added vivacity by copious access to Blue Note Records’ marvelous photography archive — and, needless to say, a brassy feast of a soundtrack — Collin fills us in on Morgan’s precocious rise to renown. In 1956, aged just 18, he was recruited by Dizzy Gillespie for his band, and joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers just two years later. Given such a head start, Morgan’s career stands as both storied and compressed, including a severe, heroin-induced 1960s collapse, sterling artistic comeback and activated political consciousness all before his death at 33. That’s more than enough of a movie in itself, but Collin often brushes past professional accomplishments to concentrate on his offbeat partnership with Helen, a bohemian scene-mother figure who had left behind a grim former life (giving birth to unwanted children at 13 and 14) in North Carolina. Fourteen years Morgan’s senior, she met him at his most strung-out and nurtured his rehabilitation; the ensuing relationship proved nourishing and destructive in equal measure.
Sometimes acidly candid, sometimes foggy, but consistently rueful, Helen Morgan’s account of events serves as the film’s narrative spine — featured alternately through digitally tidied audio and the muddy whistle of Thomas’ original cassette recordings, as if to demonstrate the ephemeral nature even of the facts in this unhappy slice of history. Collin and his adroit team of editors intercut her testimony with the present-day recollections of a host of Morgan’s colleagues and contemporaries, from Wayne Shorter to Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath to Billy Harper. They’re not always precisely aligned in their view of the man and his downfall: Morgan remains something of a slippery enigma to the end, to the point that even his wife and murderer sounds poignantly astonished in retrospect that they ever shared each other’s lives.
It’s this misty sense of memory that Young (best known for his collaborations with Ava DuVernay) conjures through his imagery, at once sketchy and sumptuous in its portrayal of a New York City just sliding out of its apex of cool into grittier squalor: His street scenes, blotching light and shadow as if painting watercolor on newsprint, can look either as vivid or as faded as the history in question. Content may be king in non-fiction filmmaking, and Collin has assembled a great deal here. But it’s the elegant melancholy of the film’s visuals, in complete sympathy with the most wistful cuts of its subject’s discography, that burnishes both the information we have and the gaps in it. “I couldn’t have did this, this must be a dream,” Helen Morgan says of her crime; by the end of this deeply sad, sensuous portrait, you almost think it was.