I Called Him Morgan plays October 2 and 3 as part of the spotlight on documentary within the 54th New York Film Festival. The film is currently without distribution. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan is a work of supremely elegant journalism, a reverse-engineered dig into one of jazz music’s many misapprehended life stories. Collin opens with an unmistakable “get”: an interview with one Larry Reni Thomas, a community college music professor in Wilmington, North Carolina, who looks and sounds like he still can’t believe what he happened upon. Thomas plays back a scratchy cassette containing the only known interview with Helen Morgan, the widow of legendary hard-bop trumpeter Lee Morgan—and, more to the point, the woman who shot Morgan in Slug’s Saloon in Alphabet City in February 1972, ending the musician’s life at the unfathomable age of 33.
But if the tape forms a backbone for the film’s portrait of the two Morgans, it’s clear Thomas didn’t sit Helen down just to talk about the shooting; she recounts growing up in dirt poor in Wilmington, all but forced into marriage and motherhood in her early teens. She describes happening upon Morgan as a freakishly young heroin addict in New York, his first round of glory days—having come up playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey, before branching off into his own sweltering, long-form hard bop—improbably far behind him. Collin’s film operates on two different tracks; there’s Lee’s life as Helen knew him, and then there’s Lee’s life as its own thing. With clean, elegant cuts between hi-contrast still photographs (the majority of them taken during recording sessions, by label executive Frank Wolff), Collin’s depiction of this period invigorates for its minimalism—the headiness, the experimentation, the camaraderie.
There’s real poignancy in seeing Wayne Shorter peer into a photo of him and Morgan taken nearly half a century ago, trying to understand his bandmate’s drug addiction then-as-now; even if Shorter is performing for Collin’s camera, there’s a sense the film is uncorking long-dormant feelings from its interviewees. (Shorter describes the anxiety of drinking enough to assuage nerves going onstage, but not “stumbling”—yet another of the film’s brief and priceless details.) Collin’s fidelity to the limits of photography—with stills appearing both as juicy tidbits, and self-aware fragments of an incomplete, bigger whole—is what separates I Called Him Morgan from the vast majority of its contemporaries, happy to stretch the meagerest glyph of sound or image to needlessly “definitive” ends. DP Bradford Young’s hazy, impressionist glances at apartment buildings and concourses (the majority of them at nighttime) suffuse Helen’s recitation of her and Lee’s relationship with geographic paranoia, but they never overtake the more journalistic imagery—content in their own right to suggest more with less.
After having his life rehabilitated in no small part thanks to Helen’s maternalistic partnership, Lee falls for another woman. Narratively speaking, Collin’s documentary knows there’s only one place left to go, but the “why?” of Lee’s killing (it can’t quite be called a murder) is left to each of the speakers—which include Albert Tootie Heath, Bernie Maupin, and Billy Harper—in a devastating finale. Like Collin’s 2006 My Name Is Albert Ayler, this is a cautionary tale against printing the legend, whereby lives are always messier than obituaries would have us believe, and people’s motivations remain a mystery—even to them—for decades. If biographical documentaries are, indeed, the new glossy magazine profiles, then Collin’s film warrants special scrutiny for doing everything right with a bare minimum of pomp or circumstance.