The title of this film is appropriate, as it appears that the producers found this archival footage of the visit of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk to Paris at the end of his European tour in 1969, rewound the tape and pressed play. Director Alain Gomis presents this footage almost entirely free of comment or context. Very vérité.
The film had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, and is screening as a part of Hot Docs 2022, the Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. In this film Monk is (sort of) interviewed by pianist Henri Renaud, at this point a full-time executive for French CBS’s jazz division, for a French television program called Jazz Portrait.
Much well-deserved criticism is being heaped upon Renaud for coming off as a preening stuffed shirt, but Monk is singularly disengaged. He’s mostly interested in going to dinner, but Renaud, like a sadistic asylum psychiatrist, instructs him to continue playing. Monk does not look well and begins to sweat profusely under the intense studio lights.
The bits in which Monk is not playing, he’s either smoking, drinking, staring off into space, or all of the above. He doesn’t care to say much, but my goodness the playing! This is a rare opportunity to see Thelonious Monk in action, performing some of his best-known tunes, like “Monk’s Mood,” “Epistrophy,” and “‘Round Midnight.”
If you’ve never watched Monk play, allow me to offer some perspective on his technique, courtesy of author Thomas Owens from Bebop: The Music and Its Players:
Monk’s usual piano touch was harsh and percussive, even in ballads. He often attacked the keyboard anew for each note, rather than striving for any semblance of legato. Often seemingly unintentional seconds [intervals] embellish his melodic lines, giving the effect of someone playing while wearing work gloves. […] He hit the keys with fingers held flat rather than in a natural curve, and held his free fingers high above the keys. […] Sometimes he hit a single key with more than one finger, and divided single-line melodies between the two hands.
The film ends fittingly with Renaud literally pretending to listen to Monk, and Monk sitting in silence. I was left wondering, “Did the man ever get his dinner?”