The title of the just-completed documentary “Dave Grusin: Not Enough Time” reflects the subject’s lament that there aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the year for all the music that needs to be made. That desire to stretch the clock might seem hyperbolic coming from other musicians, but not for someone whose hats have included film and TV scorer, concert performer, producer and jazz label mogul, often all at once.
At a post-screening Q&A in Santa Monica this week, the great jazz bassist Marcus Miller spoke about being a youthful protege and watching Grusin casually change hats mid-day… and assuming that was normal.
“I started playing with Dave Grusin when I was 17, 18 — I don’t know how old, but I know I had braces,” Marcus laughed. “To see him run a session, and then know that he’s going to score a movie that night after the session… He was always working. Him and Quincy Jones, these guys are doing 14 things at the same time, and I just assumed if you’re a musician, that’s what you do. So I followed in their footsteps, man. You know, sleep – what’s that?… I thought he was from New York, because he was a hustler.”
Said director Barbara Bentree, “For a long time we had this running joke among the crew that we were going to call this film ‘He Did That?’ It was a constant discovery.” One of the things she was most pleased about getting access to for clips was Andy Williams’ 1960s variety show, which had Grusin as musical director, pianist and occasional on-screen comic foil, before the film runs — sometimes hurriedly, sometimes at leisure — through a resume that includes another youthful stint with Sergio Mendes; the themes for “Maude,” “Good Times” and “St. Elsewhere”; Oscar-nominated scores for “On Golden Pond” and “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (among others); the also Oscar-nominated “Tootsie” hit “It Might Be You”; and the longtime presidency of the GRP label.
After previously showing in incomplete form at jazz festivals, “Not Enough Time” was being screened at Smart Post West for members of the Society of Composers & Lyricists, along with interested distributors. The post-screening panel, moderated by Variety‘s Jon Burlingame, included Bentree and executive music supervisor Joel Sill, along with Miller. Among those in the audience were Bentree’s husband and co-producer, John Rangel, movie-theme king Alan Bergman and Quincy Jones himself, who offered remarks from the audience.
Grusin was decidedly not from New York, as the documentary shows, but Colorado; he now resides on a ranch in Montana, where most of the interviews were filmed, not just of him but of “fishing buddies” like Michael Keaton, Tom Brokaw and author Thomas McGuane.
“I hear nature in his music,” said Bentree, who caught footage of Grusin doing something he proudly hints that he might be even better at than composing: fly-fishing. “I’m someone from rural Minnesota, and I think that’s one of the reasons his music moves me.”
Miller remembered him and some of his fellow players forming an expectation of Grusin based on his folksy appearance. “We were these urban kids from New York, and this cowboy cat comes and sits down at the piano with us, and we’re like ‘Ooh, this isn’t going to go well at all.'” It did.
But the Grammy-winning bassist came to learn that the “cowboy” aspect of Grusin’s demeanor didn’t exactly translate to laid-back. Grusin had “no ego at all,” Miller said, “but he was so concerned about the music that that was like the ego. In other words, he wouldn’t yell at you to make himself bigger. What he would do is yell at you because you played a wrong part. Not that he ever yelled at me! Let’s get that part right.”
Miller came to appreciate the sense of wide open spaces that Grusin brought to his scores, when he wasn’t improvising with Manhattan’s finest. “You know who he reminds me of?” asked the bassist. “The classic early American composers — Charles Ives and these guys who, when you heard their music, you really got a sense of America… not the edges, but the center of America. He somehow has figured out how to continue that tradition and update it to include all the other influences that he obviously has, like jazz and urban sounds.”
Humility was frequently mentioned as a quality of Grusin’s, although it wasn’t that that caused him to skip the Oscars when he won best score for “The Milagro Beanfield War” in 1988. As he explains in the film, he simply skipped that night because he figured he had zero chance after showing up and losing for much more popular films, like “Heaven Can Wait” and “The Champ.” Although he never won again, he would be nominated several times more, including for “The Firm,” one of his many collaborations with Sydney Pollack, an all-piano score so innovative that no one but the most attentive musicians noticed it was solely piano.
The apparent humility made the documentary a tough sell for Bentree. “He said, ‘Oh, no one will be interested in that.’ … It was really his lovely wife Nan (Newton) who said, ‘Dave, if you don’t let these two musicians (Bentree and Rangel) do this movie about you… once you pass on, someone else is going to do that story and you’re not going to have any input.’ We gave him final approval on everything. It was really Nan who ended up being a coproducer on the film and got all these wonderful people to come participate.”
Bentree spoke about what had to be left on the cutting room floor. “When Dave talks about that era of everybody on the street (in Manhattan)… We made a map of all the recording studios in NYC. It was every block.” The audience of veteran musicians groaned at the omission, but she assured them she’d try to get it on the DVD or the movie’s website.
Sill launched his long association with Grusin when he was a studio executive. “I met him on the film ‘Reds.’ Stephen Sondheim was the composer on the film and he couldn’t actually take being tortured that much from (Warren) Beatty, so he left, and Beatty said, ‘Get me Dave Grusin. He did a great job on “Heaven Can Wait”.’ And that was the beginning of a relationship that lasted through seven or eight films,” and into this new one.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is he’s so empathetic, he actually feels the characters in the film, like he feels people in real life,” Sill said. “Like Quincy says in the film, God left his hands on his shoulders, and I think he also slipped one hand down and touched his heart. He’s just got so much soul, and watching him work, he’s so gentle, but he’s so clear about what he wants to get, and he works so hard to get it.” Sill likened Grusin’s output to being “like Christmas morning for a kid. He just gives all these gifts.”
Jones, asked by Burlingame what Grusin’s legacy will be, responded: “Some serious music — in every category. … Your music will never be more or less than you are as a human being. That’s what it’s about. Dave is an incredible human being. Now, I know him backwards. That’s where it starts. A human being.”