Most films on jazz have been unsuccessful for many reasons. Perhaps paramount is that they often pigeonhole the genre and its subject into something cliché or pedestrian in a linear structure. These films rarely capture the essence of the music — and its musicians — at its purest and most potent state, which is anything but conventional.
Eliane Henri’s HARGROVE, which debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, eschews convention, finding beauty in the messiness of a Black artist’s life (something that has been perennially absent in the telling of our stories) and highlighting one of jazz’s great progenitors — and causes célèbres — as a wonderfully flawed human being. It also attempts to demystify a genre that, frankly, has grown more esoteric over time.
In the late ‘90s, it was rare for a first-call jazz musician to step outside the box and play hip-hop or funk without criticism. Henri captures the initial skepticism of The Soulquarians, notably Questlove (“In my mind, you’re trying to initiate someone in the team that’s like ‘suit and tie’”) and Wynton Marsalis’ own disapproval (“I didn’t like it. Jazz music is very difficult…it’s not going to evolve out of hip-hop.”) From D’Angelo’s Voodoo to Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, these collaborations would ultimately help bolster the intrinsic bond between jazz and hip-hop — and Roy Hargrove played an integral part in that.
Hargrove was a rare entity in Black music. From his perfect pitch to his signature warm and redolent tone, for many of us, he was an accessible, living jazz giant born out of the hip-hop generation. Hargrove was revered by both his contemporaries and the forebears of jazz, as the film documents conversations with artists like Questlove, Herbie Hancock, Yasiin Bey, and Sonny Rollins. Perhaps one of his greatest gifts was his innate ability to connect these many varied offsprings of Black music, possessing a keen understanding of the tradition while still asserting his rightful place as part of its continuum.
The film is set during what was to be Hargrove’s final summer European tour in 2018. Throughout the year, Henri documents the bustle of touring life, shooting him in eight cities across three countries. Though his immense catalog is mainly absent from the film, we are introduced to (or reminded of) Hargrove’s undeniable talent on the trumpet through archival footage of live performances at local jaunts like NYC’s Blue Note and several renowned festivals, as well as an early appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Some of the film’s more palpable moments occur when it’s just Hargrove and his horn, as he plays outside his window at a European hotel while looking into the nighttime sky.
With cinematographer Robert Benavides (Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest), Henri weaves through a tapestry of different binaries that offer some insight into who Hargrove was — humor and tragedy, beauty and pain, love and hate. One moment, we wander with him through the streets of Italy in search of ice cream. Next, we’re watching him openly discuss his struggles with the rigors of touring while battling kidney disease and dialysis treatments.
There are also some great anecdotes from Hargrove’s collaborators who speak to his generosity as an artist. In one defining moment, Erykah Badu (who serves as one of the film’s executive producers) recalls how Hargrove encouraged her to write and sing the lyrics for “Poetry.” Unable to read music, Badu was less than confident about her vocals. But after she recorded the song, Hargrove affirmed the “prettiness” of her voice, something Badu tearfully admits she wasn’t aware of at the time.
HARGROVE does have its issues at times, particularly in Henri’s use of meta — from voiceover questions to constantly adjusting shots within the frame. These moments sometimes take away from the impact of HARGROVE, allowing the making of the documentary to become a part of the film in a way that’s sometimes distracting. However, when Henri does include herself in the film it works, particularly when it shifts to tackling the business side of jazz, especially as it pertains to Larry “Ragman” Clothier, Hargrove’s manager.
Introduced to Hargrove by Marsalis when he first discovered the young trumpeter as a high school student at the Dallas Arts Magnet, Clothier has been a longtime contentious figure in jazz, as confirmed by many of Hargrove’s frequent musical collaborators in the film — Robert Glasper, Marc Cary, Antonio Hart, Frank Lacy, Gerald Cannon, and Christian McBride. Henri experiences some of the challenges of working with Clothier herself, with the manager prohibiting the film crew from documenting any performances from Hargrove’s final European tour. (Although, surprisingly, while in Sète, France, Clothier did allow an unfiltered and heated discussion about this hindrance between himself, Henri, and Hargrove, but without a resolution.)
Hargrove’s relationship with Clothier is also something the documentary highlights. There’s one moment in particular where the late trumpeter calls Clothier a surrogate father who helped him survive many scrapes in his life and career, including possible jail time for drug possession. Still, he then proceeds to say that his manager was someone whose bottom line was all about money.
HARGROVE gives audiences a rare peek behind the curtain. Everything becomes a teachable moment, from his candid observations on life as a working musician to offering rare insight into his process: “I try to learn all the words to the song because if you know the words, you can play the melody true.” While several unavoidable difficulties affected the documentary — noticeably the absence of his music catalog (according to a caption provided at the end of the film, Clothier, who controls Hargrove’s publishing, refused to license music for the film) — Henri still renders an evocative, intimate portrait of a progressive and complex jazz musician who consistently pushed the boundaries for what was possible for the music.
Despite grappling with the struggles of a bygone jazz era — drug addiction, mental illness, and questionable business practices — none of this seemed to slow Hargrove down, and up until the very end, he continued to hold his unofficial residency at Smalls Jazz Club and mentor the next crop of emerging jazz voices. It is still hard to fathom that Roy Hargrove is an ancestor, but as Antonio Hart says in the film, “If there is a heaven and there’s a jam session going on right now, he’s not letting John Coltrane and those guys sleep!”
Shannon J. Effinger (Shannon Ali) has been a freelance arts journalist and cultural critic for over a decade. Her writing on all things jazz and music regularly appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR Music, Pitchfork, Bandcamp, EBONY, and Downbeat, among others.
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