Sunday 10 December 2017

On demand: "I Called Him Morgan"

There's a fair bit of story going on inside Kasper Collin's documentary I Called Him Morgan, yet for some while, it's not entirely clear whose story it is - that of the I in that title, or that of the Him - and, in the end, there may not quite be enough of it. Through a combination of characterful talking heads and atmospheric archive footage, Collin starts by laying out the tragedy of Lee Morgan, virtuoso jazz trumpeter and breakout star of the Dizzy Gillespie ensemble, who was shot dead, aged just 33, in 1971. The momentum, however, is stalled by cutaways to a straggly loose end: a 1996 cassette recording, retrieved from an overstuffed desk drawer, of an interview Morgan's former wife Helen gave to a teacher at the adult skills facility she attended in later life. In it, we hear Helen talking openly about a tough childhood in the American South (she was a mother-of-two by the age of fourteen), her transition to New York nightlife, and her whirlwind romance with the musician. If it seems as though the two strands have been set on a collision course, it's because these lives were: as jazz aficionados may already know, it was Helen who shot Lee that night at Slug's Saloon.

The bum notes, then, have to be taken alongside the good. The Helen returned to life here is a tough Southern belle - a whizz in the kitchen, a headturner on the streets - but also clearly a woman at least as impulsive as her straying, weak-willed husband: a key biographical detail, let slip in passing early on, is that she once married a man after knowing him for a week. We first get a sense something wasn't right in this relationship around thirty minutes into Collin's film, with the appearance of a photo showing Lee in the recording studio with a large bandage wrapped around his head - a consequence, it transpires, of the trumpeter blacking out during a heroin blowout and coming to rest on a blazing radiator. Helen was the person responsible for cleaning Lee and his reputation up, and getting him back out on the circuit (and, tragically, among other women): as a fellow musician notes, "She needed someone to take care of, and he needed someone to take care of him." (Collin doesn't push it, but we might start to wonder whether this little boy lost became a substitute for those children Helen left behind back in Wilmington - a way of making amends for her earlier actions.) 

The story, it turns out, is one of dependency, and what happens once such dependencies are threatened. If we feel Collin being deliberately coy in withholding this tale's sorry pay-off, we can admire his confident handling of his raw materials. Those same jazz aficionados will surely nod appreciatively at the long, uninterrupted slices of Morgan's oeuvre allowed to play out on the soundtrack, proofs of the subject's genius that also contain melancholy hints of promise lost. The film's limitation is that Collin can only amplify what turned out to be a small, sad, semi-forgotten domestic so much. The obvious corrective would have been to dig a little deeper into Helen's rehabilitation and reemergence into polite society, perhaps at the expense of Lee's rise to prominence: we get there in the closing ten minutes, but by then it feels too little, too late. That cassette recording was apparently the only time Lee's saviour and killer put herself on the record in any form (she died a few months later), sitting opposite an interviewer who clearly didn't realise what he had on his hands: it is undeniably compelling while the encounter unspools, but eventually the tape runs out.

I Called Him Morgan is now available to stream on Netflix.

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