Thursday, May 03, 2012

Shirley Clarke and Freddie Redd’s The Connection

Avant-garde cineastes know it as Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, but to fans of classic Blue Note hard bop, it belongs to Freddie Redd.  While Clarke’s adaptation of Jack Gelber’s boundary-breaking stage play holds a place of honor in the world of independent/experimental cinema, Redd’s music claims the ears and affections of many jazz listeners, particularly fans of the late great alto-saxophonist Jackie McLean.  For the uninitiated, Milestone kicks off Project Shirley, a four film Clarke restoration and re-release program, with her cinematic take on The Connection (trailer here) tomorrow at the IFC Center.

Filmmaker Jim Dunn and his cameraman have come to document the lurid lives of junkies.  Through their lens, we will watch a group of addicts loll about a divey crash-pad, waiting for their dealer, known as Cowboy, to finally show up.  Some are rather irritable while others are quite garrulous, but they are all junkies, engaging in junkie behavior.  This includes Freddie Redd’s Quartet, playing themselves, rehearsing a bit to pass the time.

Sadly, McLean certainly had his share of drug troubles.  Of course, he learned from the master, his mentor Charlie Parker.  His seventeen month stint performing in the stage production of The Connection was a godsend for the musician.  A narcotics bust had cost him his cabaret card, making him unemployable in New York nightclubs.  However, legit theaters, even grungy avant-garde venues like The Living Theater, were except from the controversial regulation.  The Connection became something still quite rare in the jazz world—a regular gig—at a time when McLean most needed it.

It is great music too—perhaps too good.  Redd rerecorded his themes with a different line-up for a British label, which hardly endeared him to Blue Note co-founder and producer Alfred Lion.  Redd only recorded three records for Blue Note during what should have been the peak of his productive years, including the Redd’s Blues session that was finally released decades after it was laid down.  Yet, they perfectly represent the smoldering intensity of the hard bop style incubated on the label.

As a film, Clarke’s Connection is undeniably important, winning a pyrrhic victory against the New York Board of Regents (which then functioned as a censoring schoolmarm for New York cinemas).  However, its cast, mostly carried over from the Living Theater production, is clearly more accustomed to acting for the stage (such as it was) than the screen.  However, it boasts an iconically cool performance from Carl Lee, who would appear in several blaxoploitation classics before succumbing to his own demons, as the smoothly dangerous Cowboy.  Yet, the most intriguing turn comes from Roscoe Lee Browne as J.J. Burden, the street smart cameraman, who acts as a hip corrective to Dunn’s naïve pretentions.

For viewers who have seen John Travolta pop a syringe full of adrenaline through Uma Thurman’s breastplate, the heroin scenes in The Connection might appear tame by comparison.  Yet, it never glamorizes drug use.  Believe it or not, it is much closer to Nancy Reagan than Cheech & Chong in that respect.  Regardless, there is an earthiness and immediacy to the film that still holds up.  Of course, there is also the music, which alone justifies a strong recommendation.  This review was written to the sounds of Redd’s score and every minute of it sounded awesome, again, for the something-hundredth time.  It is a film everyone considering themselves fully accredited film snobs really has to be familiar with.  Conveniently, it opens tomorrow (5/4) at New York’s IFC Center, in all its freshly restored gritty glory.