I Called Him Morgan

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Kasper Collin

Starring

Helen Morgan Lee Morgan Wayne Shorter

Anticipation.

Ever since its festival run in late 2016, this one has been at the top of our playlist.

Enjoyment.

A very great film, and a model of restrained, meticulous cultural history.

In Retrospect.

A suitable monument for an exceptional talent.

The sad story of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan is revealed in Kasper Collin’s exceptional documentary.

It’s a tactic of many a modern screenwriter to parlay the high drama of classical tragedy into a more approachable and relatable template. Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan does this too, but his tragedy is ripped from cold reality, as it relays the heartbreaking tale of superlative bop trumpeter, Lee Morgan.

Known for helping forge the defining sound for the Blue Note label, as well as releasing such seminal longplayers as The Sidewinder and Lee-Way, Morgan fits very cleanly into the tormented jazzman mould as seen in such movies as Clint Eastwood’s Bird (about Charlie Parker). From auspicious beginnings playing alongside the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Morgan’s natural talent began to wane as his habit for hard drugs developed. He burned holes into his head while in the heady throes of overdose, and he even turned up to a band session in his slippers having sold his shoes for dope.

Enter salvation in the form of sassy, outspoken Helen Moore, who literally dragged him from the gutter and helped re-stoke a dwindling creative flame. But then with confidence renewed, Morgan took off in a new direction. Against a backdrop of punishing tour schedules, club nights, TV appearances and Jazz-based activism, the film projects an intimate portrait of these star-crossed lovers with the aid of two taped interviews: one with Lee in the early ’70s talking around his creative process; the other with Helen just one month before her death in 1996, and clearly looking to offload the hefty emotional burden of her later life and make a clean break with her many demons.

Collin’s exceptional, atmospheric film avoids the hysteria and hyperbole of similar true crime documentaries to usher this delicate story in with a palpable sense of sorrow rather than a desire to retroactively point the finger of justice. There’s no hatred here, just regret. There are no conspiracies or attempts at highfalutin justification, just acceptance that some really bad things happen and that fate sometimes conspires to make those things even worse.

The use of archive footage underneath Helen Morgan’s sometimes forced confessions makes for a heady juxtaposition, connecting her words with an era before everything went wrong. Plus, Collin manages to rope in many of Morgan’s contemporaries to deliver first-hand reminisces – there are no hangers-on or rubberneckers here, just friends, family and close colleagues only.

It means the portrait built of Morgan is stark, but also more refined and meaningful. But the thing that makes this film so desperately sad is the footage of him playing, each time like he knows it’s his last day on Earth.

Published 28 Jul 2017

Tags: Documentary Jazz Kasper Collin

Anticipation.

Ever since its festival run in late 2016, this one has been at the top of our playlist.

Enjoyment.

A very great film, and a model of restrained, meticulous cultural history.

In Retrospect.

A suitable monument for an exceptional talent.

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