Director Alain Gomis on His Illuminating New Thelonious Monk documentary, 'Rewind & Play'
We spoke to director Alain Gomis about his stunning new Thelonious Monk documentary, Rewind & Play.
If you want an example of how the strange and unpredictable pathways of culture and its history are recorded and shaped, you could do worse than Thelonious Monk’s trip to Europe in 1969. The now legendary tour — amongst the thinning ranks of historical jazz nerds and obsessives — was regarded as a triumph for Monk. Fifteen years from his first, disappointing visit to the continent, his audience had finally caught up to his art, and he spent months that autumn and winter overseas as a grand elder statesman, playing to adoring and enthralled crowds. The tour was probably best remembered for Paris 1969, a concert recorded at the Salle Pleyel and broadcast on French television, then lived on as a bootleg — before Bluenote released it officially in 2013 — still regarded as one of the seminal late Monk recordings.
But that day, before Salle Pleyel, Thelonious Monk first stopped — without his band — to record a 30 minute television show called Jazz Portraits. He played a few compositions solo, and engaged in an unbearably awkward interview with the show’s host, a jazz pianist moonlighting as a journalist named Henri Renaud. The two plus hours of unedited footage from the taping eventually found its way to the filmmaker Alain Gomis, working on a narrative feature about Thelonius. And while Paris, 1969 isn’t going anywhere, there’s a good chance the film he’s made from the footage, Rewind & Play, will become as much a part of the lasting legacy from that period in Monk’s career.
Gomis hasn’t “just” made a concert film about Monk’s dissonant genius and performance. It’s about media narrative, packaging, expectations, and what happens when those expectations aren’t met. Rewind & Play (which is now playing in selected cities and is coming to PBS' AfroPop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange series next month) is just as much about a reporter who, at least on one occasion, was deeply shitty and incurious.
We see Thelonious Monk, both in the world, comfortable and warm, far removed from his difficult, enigmatic reputation, enjoying the company of his wife Nellie, and petting dogs. In the studio, he sits at the bench, in front of his worktable, wearing a cross between a fez and a yarmulke in a blazer, his beard both wooly and trimmed, a metaphor for his general look and demeanor. We watch him strain to make a connection with his hubristic host on the show, and ultimately fail, through no fault of his own.
In his preceding films, Félicité and Tey, Gomis likes long takes and giving his action room to develop naturalistically, a tactic he deploys ruthlessly in Rewind & Play, making us squirm and writhe through what has to be the most uncomfortable sit down in the history of French television. Arnaud is demeaning and domineering, editing Monk in conversation and dictating action to his producers in a language Monk doesn’t speak. At times, it can be hard to watch the frustration on the 52 year old’s sweat drenched, uncomprehending- but comprehending plenty- face.
As a musician, Thelonious Monk relied heavily on expectations, in that he was constantly subverting them, using what the audience believed was coming against them, like a martial artist using their opponent’s own weight as a weapon. The author Geoff Dyer put it best when he said Monk played the piano like he’d never seen one before. The same was true in life. He was unconventional, quietly gregarious but often laconic, rheumy eyed, and could appear to be both receiving and sending his communications from somewhere remote, on a phone with spotty reception. Until you got him in front of a piano and he became one of the most articulate conversationalists who ever lived.
And this is the power of the film, because after the time spent speaking past him, Thelonious Monk is finally allowed to speak for himself, as usual, with his hands. His performance is remarkable in how it communicates his frustration and melancholy, and also the great refuge he always found in playing through the storms of life, as off camera, people mill around and converse, taking his brilliance for granted.
Ultimately it’s a film about alienation, the danger of the bad faith white arbiter attempting to take the art from the hands of the Black artist, and about how as hard as some try, that isn’t possible.
We spoke to Alain Gomis about the themes featured in his stunning new film, Rewind & Play.
Okayplayer: Where did your initial interest in Thelonious Monk come from as a subject?
Alain Gomis: I think I heard his music the first time as a student, and I can't say it was love at first sight. I was like, “what is that?” It took me several years to come back to it. That's what really I love with him and his music. You come back, the mystery stays, you don't lose your interest and your curiosity grows as you find out more and more about him. You can easily become an addict of it.
You realize how difficult it is for us to be simple. Because I think at the end of the day, his music and his journey, his way to approach music and art is very simple, and we're not used to it. And that’s when you give up. When you open yourself up to the mystery of it, and when you start getting in touch with it for real you'll be like, whoa. This is beautiful.
He's doing the opposite of the thing that was supposed to be done, but you can't know it before he's doing it. It's like, Oh, yeah. When we talk, even with ideas, we have what we think is a natural, but is not a natural resolution of something. Because we’re used to AB, and you expect C, and he will not play the C. Because he’s not using the normal codes. Even if he played the same tune a thousand times, each time is going to be different. It's like how to be on this frontier on the edge of the present. What could be done just right now. Each time it's different. And each time you have to be true.
So I thought that there were some interesting parallels between this film and Felicitè, both are stories or have elements of stories about artists that are fighting against exploitation and the right to a voice. Was that something overt that drew you into this story, or was it coincidental?
I didn't mean it. This film is more like an accident. I had this footage, and it was like,” whoa, I want to do something with that.” But maybe you're right. Maybe some artists are interested in the same kinds of subjects, or we tend to see things from a certain angle. I don't know. But I was surprised by this film. When I saw the film for the first time, the first with the first draft, I was very surprised, and moved by it also. And it was surprising to me because I thought, yes, when I saw the footage, I was shocked by the way he was treated. But I wasn’t prepared for the overall impact.
Editing is sometimes trying to find the place where something gets its maximum power. You will not decide, it's like playing. If you play the right thing at the right moment, it's just better. And you don't know why. And my feelings watching the footage was I didn't know why I was so angry sometimes and so fascinated other times. I was just happy to be able to see the Thelonius I had read about.
There is this fantastic book by Robin Kelly called Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. He spent like 40 years of his life working on this biography. And you can read how his family members and his friend talked about him. And I was happy to see in this footage, uncut footage to see the Thelonius people were talking about. He was regarded as this kind of autistic guy. But here, he's talking with people. He's really nice. He's not talking a lot, but he's present. So I was happy to see that. And then I was also very surprised to see how at the taping, they don't even listen to him.
What did you make of Renaud, besides being a poor journalist? He struck me as a Salieri type. Did he see himself as his peer? Is he a fan? Because he was a musician himself, maybe on some level a rival? What do you think Renaud wanted from Thelonious Monk?
I think he really admired the work. He's a fan. But I think that they live in such different worlds that he thinks that Thelonius is his friend. I don't think he realized how much their daily experience is different.
And he got this kind of fake… empathy, when you think that, “yeah, I understand. You can't understand, man.” It's painful to watch because he’s also got an attitude. He's really happy to be able to display Thelonious Monk on French TV. Thelonius is really well known at this time in France, and he's really proud of himself. But in doing so he's using so many archetypes and so many stereotypes. Maybe he thinks that it's necessary to make this weird guy accessible to everybody. And he's trying to do good.
The road to hell.
He's not a bad guy. He really loved Monk. And that's the problem. Because we all know how many times we’ve had to deal with this kind of person. I’ve shown this film to many young people, and couldn’t believe how connected they feel in their daily experiences today to what Monk is living through at that time. It was scary.
You're helping me clarify my own feelings to his approach, which is it's this sort of paternalistic arrogance, where he's going to interpret or explain Monk to a French audience rather than let Thelonious Monk speak. He’s “Protecting” Monk from himself. So this event happens later the same day, where Monk records Paris 1969, and in that program, there's a second interview, with Jacques Hess, also a jazz musician playing at journalism, but almost beat for beat, it's the same interview. He's doing the same things, putting words in Monk’s mouth and talking over him.
Yes, I saw it. They are so confident they’re part of the good side, to be modern people, open minded people. And those are the most dangerous people. Each time you think that you're on the good side of the thing, you're becoming dangerous, and that's what is happening in both cases. When you see the TV show, the way it was edited at the time, it's 30 minutes, and all the conversation between him and Monk is canceled. Deleted. There were only two questions. One is, what is the title of this song? And the second is, do you remember when you composed it? At some point, Monk becomes the largest obstacle in telling his own story.
It was easier to tell their own story of who he was rather than letting him present a person that didn't cohere with their pat narrative. It reminded me of in court in America, you have direct questioning and cross examination. And when you're posing a direct question to a witness, you're not allowed to lead the witness with questions, but on cross examination, you're allowed to set everything up hostilely, as a yes or no question. And it felt like they wanted to lead Monk, not to actually let him talk. Did you get any pushback in terms of representation of Renaud? Has there been any negative feedback?
Yeah. From what remains of this French jazz world from that time, because Renaud was very connected with them. But they have this bourgeois, elitist, European view of what art is supposed to be, which means: there is the happy few able to understand, and the other ones. They felt like they were part of the good people at the time, and they’re defending that paternalism. But it was funny. It was a good time. We had some very good exchanges during screenings.
So the objections were like, maybe this wasn't his best moment, but it kind of paints him in this light and he wasn't really that bad of a guy.
Yeah, that's the thing. Because racism, paternalism, all these things are not necessarily conscious. It's part of society. Women who have seen the film, for example. Screenings were easier with women, and in fact, the film has been really well received in France. But I remember in some screenings, for women, it was really easy to understand his behavior. They can recognize that sometimes some people will think that they can do something or will behave a certain way- condescending- call it what you want. We can all recognize it because you have lived it 100 times. You know this guy. You know he treated you in this way because he thinks that he can do it and you don't even see it.
I grew up as a big hip-hop fan, and I think your film articulates something that I've been trying to process for a long time, which is this very strange relationship that European society has with Black American artists. There is a reverence that runs throughout the 20th century. Black artists have been able to come to Europe and find acceptance and respect, but almost as symbols rather than individuals. Why is it alternately such a comfortable place to be a Black artist outside of the confines of a very racist and oppressive American society, but then at the same time taking on this racist and a dehumanizing “idea” of a person, which is what Renaud essentially does to Monk?
This is like this fantasia for European people, especially French people, to have to be less racist, more open-minded people. And it’s awful because in Europe, if you come from Africa, you're just like, nothing. But if you come from the United States, you're Black and it's like, okay, you're American.
Oh, that's so interesting. So their Blackness is filtered somehow through the prism of America?
But how can we imagine that you can be racist with Africans and not be racist with African Americans? I mean, it’s stupid. You do the same with Jewish people and with everybody. So this is the legend, it's just done in another way in Europe. And you can see it in the film. A lot of smiles, a lot of kind words. But something weird happened. That’s why there’s no talking heads. I didn't have to say anything. You can feel it, something not normal happened.
You can watch Rewind & Play on WORLDChannel.org, Black Public Media’s YouTube Channel, WORLD’s YouTube Channel and on PBS.org and the PBS app on April 3. It will premiere on national television on May 1 on WORLD Channel.
Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City.